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Shridath Ramphal, the then Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, who commissioned the report

From the Archive: The Holdgate Report on climate change

13 October 2016
Landmark Commonwealth study gave world a ‘wake-up call’ on climate change and sea level rise

A groundbreaking study laying down the devastating consequences of climate change and rising seas was published by the Commonwealth Secretariat in September 1989.

Produced amid a backdrop of disastrous floods in Bangladesh and growing sea inundation in Maldives, the report provided world leaders with a glimpse of the dangers they would face in coming decades.

The ‘Climate Change: Meeting the Challenge’ study, led by eminent British scientist Martin Holdgate, looked at the projected impact of rising sea levels on vulnerable countries and concluded that the world’s poor would be the “main victims” of climate change.

The ‘Climate Change: Meeting the Challenge’ report called for:

  • Improved research and monitoring
  • National and international adaption strategies
  • Safeguards for biological diversity and natural forests
  • Reductions in CO2 emissions and energy usage
  • Improved coastal defences to manage sea level rise

“At a best estimate, we now face changes of 1.0 to 2.0 degrees Celsius in a time period of 40 years and this lies outside the envelope of past experience at a global level,” the report warned. “Changes in climate will change the frequency of extreme climatic events such as severe tropical storms, floods, droughts or extremes of heat.”

It continued: “All countries will be faced with the need to adapt to rapid change, with attendant costs – in many cases the resulting disruptions and tensions are likely to be considerable.”

‘First major intergovernmental report’

Shridath Ramphal, then Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, who commissioned the report from an international expert group at the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Vancouver, Canada, in 1987, described the threat of climate change in his foreword as “truly global in its implications”.

He said: “If the Earth is to warm by even the most modest of the various projections, there could be far reaching, long term implications for natural ecological systems, farming, the design of major energy and water projects and for low lying areas that could be affected by rising sea level.”

The Holdgate report called for a “major international initiative” to establish “global responsibilities” for preventing unmanageable rises in the world’s temperature. It also spelt out practical steps which poor and small countries like Guyana, Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pacific islands, could take to monitor their changing environment.

Articulating the scientific consensus

Vincent Cable, a former economic adviser within the Commonwealth Secretariat, contributed to the Holgate study. Looking back, he said it was “arguably the first major intergovernmental report” on climate change and sea level rise.

“The conclusions are not controversial now but, at the time, broke new ground,” Mr Cable recalled. “The group, which included developed and developing country representatives from a wide range of backgrounds, first set out in rigorous, and very qualified terms, the then scientific consensus and the consensus forecast for global warming and sea level rise.”

Dr Holgate and his colleagues in the expert group, explained Mr Cable, were able to highlight how climate change would “bear down disproportionately on the world’s poorest people – more exposed to the risks attendant on rain-fed agriculture, very often in the most marginal and disaster-prone areas, and with few resources to adapt to change.”

A call to arms for world leaders

The report followed another Commonwealth study, ‘Our Common Future’, which had developed a definition of the then controversial topic of ‘sustainable development’ for policy-makers.

The Holdgate report led to the development of the small states grouping, the Alliance of Small Island States, which has lobbied against big energy producing and consuming countries in the climate change debate.

The ‘From the Archive’ series delves into the Commonwealth’s history to spotlight major milestones and achievements over the past 50 years.

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