In the lead up to next week’s global climate summit in New York and barely two weeks after Hurricane Dorian battered The Bahamas, the Commonwealth’s top official is calling for urgent action to tackle climate change and its disastrous impacts.
Speaking at the UN Trade Forum in Geneva last week, co-organised by the UNCTAD, the Commonwealth and other partners, Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland stressed the need for responses to the global climate crisis to be more coordinated and more swiftly implemented.
As far back as 1989, Commonwealth heads had affirmed in the Langkawi Declaration that “the main environmental problems facing the world are the 'greenhouse effect', which may lead to severe climatic changes that could include floods, drought and rising sea levels …”
However, 30 years later, the international community is still struggling to rally collective action to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Beyond this point, scientists warn of severe and irreversible impacts to the environment and communities.
Rising sea levels, warmer waters, heavier rainfall and a more acidic ocean are predicted, while trends are also changing for extreme weather such as tropical cyclones. Coastal and island communities are especially at risk.
Ms Scotland emphasised: “To see the consequences of inadequate coordinated action over the past 30 years, we have only to look at what is happening to our brothers and sisters in the Bahamas.”
Hurricane Dorian was the strongest storm ever to strike the Caribbean nation, sustaining winds of nearly 300 kmph at landfall. It was the fifth Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic within four years, following Matthew (2016), Irma (2017), Maria (2017) and Michael (2018).
The Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley highlighted worrying developments in a special lecture delivered at the UN Trade Forum.
She said: “In 2017, we had two Category 5 hurricanes in two weeks (Irma and Maria) – previously a once-in-a-thousand-years event. Yet earlier this year, Mozambique had two cyclones (Idai and Kenneth), two or three weeks apart, affecting more than two million persons.
“Small island developing states (SIDS) are in the frontline of a war that we never started.”
While the link between cyclones and human-induced climate change is still being researched, experts generally agree that warmer seas can increase their ferocity.
The disasters they cause can wreak havoc on people’s lives and economies. For instance, Category 5 Cyclone Pam cost the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu about $450 million when it struck in 2015, equivalent to 64.5% of its GDP. When Hurricane Maria hit Dominica, overall losses were estimated at $1.3 billion, or 224% of GDP.
High income SIDS in the Caribbean face further hurdles when it comes to getting international financial assistance. Their relatively high GDP per capita means they are often not eligible to tap into certain types of funding reserved for poorer countries, such as low-interest loans.
As they borrow to rebuild, they exacerbate already towering levels of debt, making it harder to recover economically in the long run.
This is one of the reasons the Prime Minister of St Lucia Allen Chastanet has called for the establishment of a special foundation dedicated to the specific needs of SIDS.
Speaking in Geneva, he said: “Hurricane Dorian has the potential to make the country absolutely bankrupt. It’s one thing when you can’t pay your debt, it’s another thing when you don’t have the physical infrastructure.
“SIDS represent less than 1% of global carbon emissions [that contribute to climate change]. This issue has taken away the ability of SIDS to be able to control our destiny.”
He stressed the importance of building resilience, adding that the Commonwealth is “well-placed” to address these challenges.
As a long-time champion for small states and one of the first intergovernmental bodies to rally support on the issue of climate change, the Commonwealth works to help countries access funds for climate projects. Through the Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub, governments have made successful applications to donors, unlocking a total of $ 27.3 million to date, with over $ 500 million applied for in the pipeline.
In addition, the Commonwealth is harnessing innovative web-based tools, such as a new disaster risk finance portal that makes it easier for countries to find the right financing solutions, and a law and climate change “toolkit” that helps countries assess their climate change laws.
Given their special interest in the ocean, all 53 member states adopted the Commonwealth Blue Charter to drive cooperation on ocean governance. Fiji is currently leading an action group on ocean and climate change.
Secretary-General Scotland said: “Shining as a beacon for multilateralism, as a lighthouse guiding our navigation towards safer and saner shores of sustainability, the Commonwealth speaks with authority and acts with credibility on ocean issues.”
She vowed to continue advocating for climate action and solutions at the UN Climate Summit in New York on 23 September.
Photo credit: Timothy Sullivan (UNCTAD)