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The little nation that could lead by example -- if it doesn't drown first

The Marshall Islands has an annual budget smaller than those of some American city school boards. But its leaders hope that when it comes to climate change, what the small cluster of Pacific Ocean coral atolls lacks in economic clout it can make up for in moral authority.

Last year, the Marshall Islands promised to cut its emissions 40 percent in the next decade. That's 40 percent of almost nothing -- the country, according to U.N. statistics, emits 99 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, compared to China's 6.5 billion and America's 5.8 billion. It has a national energy policy that makes solar a priority, and is vying to install solar panels in every household.

As countries get ready to meet in Cancun, Mexico, this month for another U.N. climate change conference, and with the major emitters still sparring over positions, Marshall Islands Foreign Minister John Silk said his nation's message is unambiguous: If the Marshall Islands can do it, America and China can, too.

"We're not a big emitter, but what we would like to show the rest of the world is that we are committed to doing something about climate change. We're trying to show the rest of the world that a small island can do this," Silk told ClimateWire in a telephone interview while in New York for meetings.

Still, Silk admits, he's not overly optimistic about Cancun or the trajectory of the international climate talks. "Hopefully, it will be a little bit more productive than the last meeting we had in Copenhagen" was the best he could come up with.

Sees 'an endless cycle of meetings'

President Obama and leaders of China, Brazil, South Africa and India at that 2009 meeting developed a political agreement under which major emitting nations would cut carbon and agree to transparency measures. In return, major industrialized nations would help mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 to help countries protect themselves from climate disasters and transition to a low-carbon economy. From the moment the so-called Copenhagen Accord was signed, there has been no end to the disagreements over how much legitimacy it has and what role it should play in the development of a new climate treaty.

Silk noted that the Marshall Islands has "associated itself" with the accord -- a term of art in the U.N. talks that allows the agreement a measure of formality, since it was never formally adopted by the conference. He said he's hopeful that the document will help shape a future agreement but is frustrated by what he sees as an unwillingness for major emitters to make commitments.

"Already, people are talking about the next meeting in South Africa, and then Korea, and it looks like an endless cycle of meetings without any end in sight," he said.

Most troubling of all, he said, are the recent midterm elections in the United States. Republicans gained the majority in the House and a larger chunk of the Senate in the Nov. 2 elections. Conventional wisdom among political analysts has been that climate change legislation is dead for the near future, leaving the Obama administration to cut carbon by imposing federal regulations through U.S. EPA. Meanwhile, Republicans have vowed to cut $100 billion in discretionary spending, raising questions about how the United States will come up with its share of the promised $100 billion.

Silk said the electoral shift has made it harder for countries to believe the Obama administration when its representatives insist that the United States is not backing away from its vow to cut carbon 17 percent below 2005 levels in the coming decade and raise substantial amounts of money for poor nations.

Obama has good intentions, lacks 'political clout'

"The administration has good intentions, but they just don't have the political clout," Silk said. "The elections in the United States put a lot of questions in the minds of countries. What can the U.S. bring to the table? And how does it transmit that into action by the U.S. Congress? It's not that we don't trust the United States, but action speaks louder than words."

Silk said for his country, time is running out. Most of the islands have an elevation of about 2 meters, or 6 feet. Rising sea levels represent a threat to the Marshall Islands' existence, and his nation is at the forefront of trying to answer some of the most vexing legal questions surrounding small island nation disappearance.

"For us, it's a question of 'What do you do with all these people?' It's a question of sovereignty, it's a question of security, it's a question of refugees," Silk said.

Meanwhile, the country -- with an annual budget of about $129.8 million, according to a local newspaper -- is hoping to show other nations what it can achieve with its solar electrification project. The program is aided by grants from the European Union and China.

"We don't have the financial resources, so we depend on the rest of the world to assist. But by assisting us, they are assisting the rest of the world," Silk said. "Our goal is to be as self-sufficient as we can in energy consumption. And if we can do it, there's no reason why a rich country with all the resources can't."

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