There were four signatures on the two-page letter dated June 15 that was sent to The Honorable Barack Obama, President of the United States – signatures of three ambassadors and one charge d'affaires from nations most Americans could not find on a map.
The Federated States of Micronesia. Republic of the Marshall Islands. Republic of the Fiji Islands. Papua New Guinea.
The letter contained a plea:
Mr. President, please understand that your leadership is indispensable. We are representatives of all vulnerable small island states around the world and the many other low-lying coastal countries that face the growing threat of extinction from climate change. The future of our societies depends on you.
And they asked him for something very specific and reasonable:
We are writing to request the United States Government's support for the pending proposal by the Federated States of Micronesia and Mauritius to regulate and phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol.
HFCs are a class of super greenhouse gases thousands of times more potent than CO2. The Montreal Protocol is a 20-year-old treaty which has successfully stopped the use of more than 90 similarly dangerous gases through international cooperation.
Let's use that proven Montreal treaty to handle HFCs, the diplomats were asking the president, because we can't afford to wait for a post-2012 climate treaty that might – or might not – be able to do the job instead. The seas are already rising around our nations.
What's needed to move forward with this small-island idea is a procedural detail – an amendment to the Montreal treaty, which is being discussed at a global meeting in Geneva in mid-July.
The amendment will not succeed without U.S. support to allow HFCs to be shifted to being regulated under the Montreal Protocol rather than under an international successor to the Kyoto Protocol, being worked out at Copenhagen in December. Keeping HFCs in the "Kyoto basket" could provide a way for polluters to cut cost of carbon credits under a cap-and-trade regime.
The U.S. State Department thinks the amendment is a good idea. So do Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), who have much foreign relations clout and experience. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who is championing climate law in the House, has also given it the thumbs up, along with EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the big U.S. companies that manufacture HFCs, and a variety of NGOs involved with the issue.
But last month, U.S. support for the amendment hit an invisible speed bump somewhere in the executive offices of the White House, and so these tiny nations are pleading with the new president for help as the administration prepares its policy position for the Geneva meeting only a few weeks away.
The urgency of the situation was brought home to the world from another quarter just yesterday with the publication by the National Academy of Sciences of a scientific study on the threat posed by HFCs.
The study found that left unchecked, HFCs could represent up to 45% of total global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 under a scenario that stabilizes emissions at 450 ppm.
Ten years ago, HFCs hardly seemd to pose a threat, but their accelerating use prompted a team of scientists to look again. They found HFC use would skyrocket in the developing world unless action was taken.
The astonishing findings are still rippling through scientific and policy circles, with the general public hardly aware of the confirmation of this HFC emergency within the climate emergency. But the small islands nations are painfully aware. As they explained to the president:
These projections are of deep concern to those countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Even if developed countries made significant mid-term cuts in CO2 emissions, the continued growth of HFCs globally could trigger near-term abrupt climate changes that would destroy our way of life, our homes, and displace our populations.
Various sources have confirmed that the administration has been holding internal meetings to plot a strategy on HFCs and the Montreal Protocol.
A request to the White House for reaction to the letter from the small island nations (attached below) has not received a response. The letter was copied to the Council on Environmental Quality, the National Security Council and the Office of Energy and Climate Change.