Alcorn State University welcomed Dr. Caleb Otto, Permanent Representative of Palau to the United Nations on November 19, 2015. Before his address, Ambassador Otto was given a tour of the campus, including a stop at the memorial to Alcorn’s most famous alum, the late civil rights activist Medgar Evers. This was followed by an informal meeting of international students where they discussed the United Nations, Palau and careers in global affairs. Later, about fifty students and faculty gathered to hear Ambassador Otto speak on the topic of “Climate Change, Small Island Developing States, and the United Nations”. His presentation began by speaking on each of the three subjects and then concluded on how they all come together for the small island developing states of Palau and other Pacific Island nations, and concluded the UN Lecture Series organized by the Humpty Dumpty Institute for this academic semester.
In his remarks on climate change, what Ambassador Otto shared was largely based on his participation in numerous climate change meetings under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Climate Change was also a topic of heated debate and heavy negotiations during the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals last year at the UN. Dr. Otto quoted Dr. Jeffrey Sachs’ book, “The Age of Sustainable Development”, by saying, “there has never been a global economic problem as complicated as climate change. It is simply the toughest public policy problem that humanity has ever faced.” He then went into the science of climate change citing 1892 Swedish Nobel Laureate Svante Arrhenius’ calculations that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would double in 750 years and cause a rise of 5-degrees Celsius in temperature. Modern recalculations have determined the doubling of CO2 to be roughly 150 years from Arrenhuis’ time. That would put the doubling date around 2050 – a mere 35 years from now. The long term consequences of human-induced climate change include its effects on food security, water, ecosystems, extreme weather events and the risk of abrupt and major irreversible changes in the climate system. This will lead to extreme loss of life, property, and decades-worth of developmental gains.
The second part of the Ambassador’s presentation was dedicated to defining Small Island Developing States, and why they are important. At the United Nations, Small Islands Developing States are referred to as SIDS. They are a distinct island subset of Low-income Developing Countries or LDCs. This group of UN members of small island and low-lying coastal countries share similar development challenges and concerns about the environment, especially their vulnerability to the adverse effects of global climate change. In 1992 they organized themselves into an important coalition and negotiating body called AOSIS or Alliance of Small Island States consisting of 44 UN member states drawn from all of the world’s oceans. This group constitutes close to 28 percent of developing countries, and 20 percent of the UN’s total membership and some five percent of the global population. Dr. Otto went on to outline the influence of AOSIS as a recognized force within the UN system working as a collective advocacy/lobbing voice during UN processes such as the Open Working Group on the Post-2015 Development Agenda goals, the outcome documents of the 3rd International Conference of Small Island States calling for genuine and durable partnership in implementation of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations.
Finally, Ambassador Otto went on to speak on the current (2015) United Nations processes as related to climate change and Small Island Developing States. The first is Disaster Risk Reduction as outlined in the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction which took place in Japan in March 2015. This framework aims to achieve “the substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries” over the next 15 years. The current negotiations around the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and how they pertain to Small Island Developing States were also pointed out as ways to address climate change within the UN system as were the discussions around the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Both of these frameworks have major conferences occurring this year, including the Paris Climate Conference taking place in December.
In conclusion the Ambassador went on to state that the small island states in the Pacific are already facing several threats such as rising sea levels, which include the loss of agricultural land and crops in the coastal areas, the erosion of land in coastal areas, and an increase in the salinity of fresh water. Additional climate change threats include ocean acidification and its impacts on ocean health, and storms with increased frequency and intensity. For four of the Small Island Developing States – the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Maldives, there is a real possibility of the total loss of territory and therefore, loss of culture and sovereignty. In this regard, building resilience takes on a new meaning – it must take into account the need to build psychosocial resilience in addition to infrastructure considerations. In fact, this should be the case everywhere in addressing climate change impacts. Ambassador Otto stated that regionally and nationally small island states are taking measures to address climate change. In 2013 the Pacific Island Forum adopted the Majuro Declaration which urges member island states to increase renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts. In 2014, they adopted the Palau Declaration on ‘The Ocean: Life and Future, Charting a Course to Sustainability’, which addresses the need to improve the health of the oceans. In this regard, the President of Palau has announced his intention to declare the whole of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone as a National Marine Sanctuary – to give ocean areas a chance to restore its health and allow biodiversity to rejuvenate and regenerate itself. It is envisioned that healthy oceans will also provide alternative options for economic development and sustainability of life for the people of Palau and other small island states.
Educated in medicine and health management, Dr. Otto has had extensive work experience in health and policy development both in national and international arenas, having served in the Senate of the Palau national congress (OEK) in addition to representing Palau in numerous regional and international health and political fora. Dr. Otto possesses extensive work experience with civil society through years of work with civic organizations such as the church choir, Belau Theater, and other local community organizations. He is a charter member of the Rotary Club of Palau and Board member of the Palau National Olympic Committee as well as the Palau Conservation Society. He is also a Founder of the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Palau and has extensive involvement in the Palau Tennis Federation and Palau Swimming Association where he has served on the Board of both, for several years. In international policy arena, he was the negotiator representing Palau on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control for which he received the WHO Director General Award in 2003. He championed the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Palau and was the lead author of the first report of its implementation, which he presented before the Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva in 1998. His advocacy for human rights includes work on the Implementation of the Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes as the means to ensure the rights of infants to breastmilk – the best food for them, work on Rights of Persons with Disability, Women’s rights under CEDAW and rights of the Indigenous People, including protection of traditional and cultural heritage.
At the United Nations, Dr. Otto works tirelessly on environmental matters including addressing the issues of climate change, promoting and protecting the health of oceans and seas, formulation of strategies for conservation and protection of biodiversity. During the recently concluded Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals he led the efforts to include mental health and wellbeing in the targets under the goal on health and advocated for availability and access to water as matter of human rights. He also advocated strongly for a stand-alone goal on peaceful and stable society, grounded on tolerance, acceptance and understanding, as an important component of a firm foundation for sustainable development.