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The People On The Front Lines Of Climate Change Actually Won Big In Paris

Against the odds, small island nations had a big influence at the just-finished Paris climate talks.

Posted on December 12, 2015, at 6:10 p.m. ET

A man holds a sign at the Paris climate talks on Dec. 4.
Michel Euler / AP

A man holds a sign at the Paris climate talks on Dec. 4.

LE BOURGET, France — A weird thing happened at the Paris climate talks: a bunch of tiny island nations were big players.

The islands — which are affiliated in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) — are staring down the barrel of numerous climate-related challenges, many of which were well-documented. They face erosion and ground water contamination, and in some cases an existential threat if sea levels rise.

But while the group of islands — which includes Fiji, Jamaica, Samoa, and dozens of others — were hailed by some as the "moral center" of the talks, it was far from guaranteed that their concerns would find a receptive audience among bigger, more powerful countries.

The talks ended Saturday night, and the final agreement includes deep influences from the island nations. Most significantly, it mentions a goal of keeping temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. The goal isn't legally binding, and some scientists say it might already be too late, but it was still one of the big issues pushed by the island states — and they won on it.

BuzzFeed News caught up with several officials from island nations Saturday night just as the climate conference was wrapping up to talk about the challenges they face, and how they got the world to listen.

"I think we have been better organized."

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Abdullahi Majeed — Maldives' Minister of State for Energy and Environment — is a veteran and self-described "old guard" of U.N. climate talks. His country is a collection of islands in the Indian Ocean and faces issues related to erosion and flooding.

Those issues aren't new. But Majeed said the difference at this year's climate conference had a lot to do with organization. Though the concerns of each island nation are not identical, the group managed to come together and present a compelling argument. The result, he said, was that the Paris talks are the "best so far that I have seen for the islands."

"We are happy," Majeed added. "On the whole I think 70 to 80% of our issues have been reflected."

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"People in the Pacific, people in the islands are already having to contend with the need to do something now."

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Peter Emberson, of Fiji's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the victory of small island nations happened because world leaders "heeded the science" and relied on "rational thinking."

Emberson spoke with BuzzFeed News on his way into the meeting that would ultimately produce the final climate agreement. The atmosphere was harried and chaotic, and he described the process leading up to that moment as "a long two weeks." During that time, Emberson explained, the alliance of island nations took its message to the European Union, the U.S., and the press.

The strategy seemed to be working; during the talks, it was difficult to escape mentions of 1.5 degrees, and there was a palpable sense at one point that the idea was gaining serious traction.

"It's the ability of the developed countries to truly listen," Emberson added.

Fiji also faces major problems related to sea level changes, and Emberson said three communities have already had to be moved to higher ground, and 42 others are highly vulnerable.

"If we move to 1.5 we are going to see some very, very harsh realities of climate change," he said.

"We have been fighting these climate change issues for 25 years."

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Thoriq Ibrahim — who represents the AOSIS and is the Maldives' Minister of Environment and Energy — said the islands in his country are on average only a few feet above sea level. As a result, they are seriously threatened by erosion.

The islands also struggle with water issues. Encroaching sea water has contaminated the ground water, making the islands reliant on rain. To make matters worse, the dry season has grown longer, Ibrahim said, forcing the country to send fresh water to various islands — a process he described as a "logistical nightmare."

Just before the agreement was adopted Saturday, Ibrahim praised it for including "most" of the island nations' requirements. When asked why that happened, he replied that climate change is no longer something only small nations struggle with.

"Now it has come to stage that it's not any longer that climate change issues are for the small islands," he said. "It's global."

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