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Small Island Nations Caught Between Tourism Economy, Climate Change

Small Island Nations Caught Between Tourism Economy, Climate Change

NEW YORK — Come visit the Maldives, its president entreated the world at this year's United Nations General Assembly, moments before switching to an impassioned plea for help combating climate change. The adjacent appeals illustrated a central dilemma for many small island developing states: their livelihoods, or their lives?

The United Nations recognizes 38 member states, scattered across the world's waters, as small island developing states grouped together because they face “unique social, economic and environmental challenges.”

This bloc is particularly vulnerable to climate change. This bloc is also particularly dependent on tourism — a significant driver of climate change, accountable for 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions alone, according to sustainable tourism expert Stefan Gössling — and an industry devastated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The predicament these islands find themselves in is essentially recursive: Attract tourism for economic survival, which in turn contributes to climate change, which in turn bleaches the colorful reefs and destroys the pristine beaches that attract tourists. As is, by the end of the century, these low-lying islands could drown entirely.

“The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is a death sentence for the Maldives,” President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih told the U.N. General Assembly last week.

The annual summit is an opportunity for each of the international body's 193 members to step into the spotlight on the world stage. But the Maldives — perhaps best known globally as an Indian Ocean playground for moneyed honeymooners and Bollywood celebrities — had a particularly high-profile platform this year. Its foreign minister is serving as the General Assembly's president and Solih was speaking third overall — just after U.S. President Joe Biden.
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