UN General Assembly chief warns: ‘World’s breadbaskets’ are sinking

Picture of debris of constructions destroyed by sea-level rise in Cedeño, municipality of Marcovia, Choluteca Department, in the Gulf of Fonseca in the Pacific southern coast of Honduras, taken on February 20, 2023. The coastline of Cedeno, a fishing village in southern Honduras, looks like it was hit by an earthquake. Houses, businesses and clubs stand in ruins. Forsaken. But it was not a temblor. Nor a tsunami. A much slower, but equally destructive force is at work in Cedeno and other villages on the Pacific Gulf of Fonseca: sea level rise. The creeping ocean has claimed ever more of the protective mangrove forest off Cedeno’s coast, and carves away at the land with increasingly violent sea surges. (Photo by Orlando SIERRA / AFP)

While small island states are the most vulnerable to rising sea levels, the impact is much wider, warned the President of the UN General Assembly on Thursday.

Addressing a special summit meeting, Dennis Francis – a veteran diplomat from Trinidad and Tobago – said he was determined to make sure the issue gets the attention it deserves during his presidency.

With the climate crisis unfolding rapidly, the need for more inclusive and innovative approaches to slowing climate change, including rising seas, has been resonating throughout High Level Week, in particular, at the Climate Ambition Summit.

For many countries, especially the Small Island Developing States, rising sea levels represent an existential threat.

“This is not a speculation or over-exaggeration. It is real,” explained Mr. Francis, citing data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Under current conditions, the global-mean sea level is likely to rise between eight and 29 centimetres by 2030, with equatorial regions suffering the most. The rise is mainly driven by thermal expansion, aggravated by the melting of mountain glaciers and the ice cap, with a further rise anticipated of up to 70 cm by 2070.

Extreme sea level events which used to occur once every century could become an annual phenomenon by the close of this century.

A staggering 900 million people living in low-lying coastal zones are at risk of losing their homes due to rising sea levels and other climate effects, Mr. Francis warned, adding that the issue extends far beyond coastal communities.

No one is immune to a potential catastrophe, he said, “fertile river deltas like the Mississippi, Mekong, and Nile – the world’s breadbaskets – are sinking.”

Beyond the crushing impacts on livelihoods and communities, sea-level rise carries further implications, spanning environmental, legal, political, technical, economic, cultural, and human rights dimensions.

“Not only do we risk losing land, but also the rich cultural and historical heritage of these islands and regions that have helped to shape people’s identities,” alerted Mr. Francis the dignitaries, who gathered at the early morning event.

Mr. Francis called on leaders to raise their ‘collective ambition’ and take much-needed action, and move it up the agenda at the forthcoming COP28 convening on November 30 and the SIDS (Small Island Developing States) Conference planned for 2024.