Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Representative to the United Nations, at a UN Security Council Open Debate on Sea Level Rise

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February 14, 2023

Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you so much for convening today’s discussion. We truly appreciate your presence here with us today on this very important topic. I also wish to thank the Secretary-General Guterres, to also thank President Korosi and Foreign Minister Aurescu, and especially our briefer, Ms. Pasisi, for your thoughts and insights. And I welcome the ministers who are here in the room with us today.

Colleagues, seas rising and overtaking homes, offices, towns, cities, and nations should be the stuff of apocalypse novels and movies. Instead, it is the very real threat we face today. Around the world, the shores of small island nations and low-lying coastal areas are flooding — causing damage, disruption, and dislocation on a dramatic scale. Too often countries have limited national budgets to enhance resilience, little land to lose, and constrained migration options. Such challenges all have the potential to disrupt peace and security and exacerbate existing insecurity and conflicts.

In my own home state of Louisiana, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects Gulf Coast waters could rise by as much as two feet by 2050. Already, Louisiana fishermen report that rising waters are damaging infrastructure and livelihoods; forcing locals, whose families have lived and worked in these areas for generations, to move to higher ground.

And even right here, in New York City, we caught a glimpse into the future during Hurricane Sandy as large parts of Staten Island, New Jersey, lower Manhattan, and the coasts of Brooklyn and Queens, were submerged underwater.

The threat of sea level rise is real. It is a direct result of our climate crisis. And it is a matter of international peace and security. This Council must take notice; the Council must take action.

More than 680 million people in low-lying coastal areas will lose their homes, their livelihoods, and their communities. Billions more will be displaced. Many will become climate refugees. And most of us will experience severe weather because of rising tides.

This Council must also be immediately and specifically concerned with the way the rising sea levels will make it harder for peacekeeping operations to fulfill their mandates, especially for missions that have coastal borders.

For our part, the United States is responding to these challenges by working with communities vulnerable to sea level rise at home and engaging vulnerable states abroad. The Biden Administration has stepped-up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including through the historic Inflation Reduction Act, which puts us on track to meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement. Internationally, we are urging major emitters to raise their ambitions and meet the Paris Agreement’s targets.

Nothing could be more important for limiting the dramatic effects of our oceans rising. The President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation & Resilience, PREPARE, is also helping vulnerable developing countries adapt to and manage the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise. As part of PREPARE, we are integrating climate support into critical sectors like food security, infrastructure, water and health, and ensuring vulnerable countries and communities access climate and disaster risk financing.

We are also working with our partners to strengthen early warning systems. As we announced at COP27, we are responding to the UN Secretary-General’s call for “Early Warning for All.” We have committed more than $40 million to help close the early warning gap, including new resources for small island states in the Pacific. These efforts are not only important on a humanitarian level – they also forestall potential conflicts between and within states ignited by sea level rise.

Finally, we are working to establish international policies to blunt the impact of rising sea levels. At the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit last year, we announced a new policy on sea-level rise and maritime zones. This policy affirmed our commitment to preserve the legitimacy of states’ maritime zones, and associated rights and entitlements, that have been established consistent with international law and that are not subsequently updated despite sea-level rise caused by climate change.

The United States will not challenge such maritime zones even if they are not subsequently updated to reflect sea level rise caused by climate change. Our new policy reflects the approach taken by the Pacific Islands Forum and the Alliance of Small Island States. We encourage others to adopt practices consistent with this approach and will work with partner countries to establish and maintain baselines and maritime zone limits. These actions aim to prevent conflict by ensuring countries maintain access to their longstanding maritime zones and the corresponding economic opportunities.

The truth is, as we look ahead, the threat of sea level rise raises challenging questions on statehood for certain particularly vulnerable islands. We must work together to address these challenges. These risks also bring into stark relief the urgency of reducing global emissions and helping vulnerable countries and communities adapt to a changing climate. This is happening today. Fortunately, the worst impacts can be avoided. But we have to act now, and we have to act together.

We look forward to hearing your views today and partnering to prevent sea level rise in the days to come.

Thank you, Mr. President.

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