By Sir Ronald Sanders
Climate Change is no longer a future event. It is here, now and real. Planet Earth, mankind’s common homeland, appears to be already locked into 1.5C of warming, once hoped to be the top limit of human-caused climate change.
The world is now set to storm its way through the 2C limit set by the much vaunted but inadequate agreement reached in Paris in 2016.
Small island states and countries with low-lying coastlands in the Caribbean and elsewhere are in jeopardy. They ought to reject promises from the industrialized nations and, instead, insist on concrete action to address the looming danger. Accepting promises of future action does no more than give additional time for the industrialised polluting countries to do nothing while conditions deteriorate fatally for small countries.
In a recent report to the UN Human Rights Council, Professor Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights stated: “Sombre speeches by government officials at regular conferences are not leading to meaningful action as States continue to kick the can down the road. The essential elements of climate change were understood in the 1970s, and scientists and advocates have been ringing alarm bells for decades. Yet States have marched past every scientific warning and threshold, and what was once considered catastrophic warming now seems like a best-case scenario”.
The enormity of this problem is evident even in larger poor countries. According to the World Bank, 18.8 million people were displaced in 2017 due to disasters in 135 countries—almost twice the number displaced by conflict. Since 2000, people in poor countries have died from disasters at rates seven times higher than in wealthy countries.
Researchers from Stanford University have already warned that climate change is widening global inequality between nations.
A kind of ‘climate apartheid’ is developing which will lead to rich countries insulating themselves from extremes of weather while locking-out from their borders people seeking to escape heat stress, vector diseases, lack of water supply and little capacity to grow food.
This background influenced an answer I gave to a question posed to me by “The Latin American Advisor”, a US based publication that was published on July 15.
The question was: “A normal” hurricane season, in line with the annual average of 12 tropical storms forming over the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, is expected this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What steps are Caribbean governments taking to prepare for the hurricane season? To what extent have hurricanes and tropical storms held back Caribbean countries’ economic growth and social development over the years? What short-term and long-term measures should countries in the region implement to better deal with the preparation for, and recovery from, natural disasters?”.
My answer was: “The failure of large industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gas emission drastically has increased and intensified hurricanes. Caribbean countries have learned that there is no ‘normal’ hurricane season. The effects of more powerful and destructive hurricanes are multidimensional, including: reversing economic growth; blighting future economic development by sky-rocketing insurance premiums that discourage rebuilding; high construction costs to rebuild for greater resilience; insufficient access to concessional financing; the need for larger and more comprehensive country-risk insurance but insufficient revenues to pay the premiums; greater unemployment; enlarged poverty; emigration, particularly of skilled labour; weakened security and increased crime; and high debt due to commercial borrowing for repeated reconstruction.
Preparing for these effects are beyond the capacity of Caribbean countries that are the least contributors to greenhouse gas emissions but are among the greatest victims. Nonetheless, at national and regional levels, Caribbean countries have implemented policies and strategies both to try to withstand hurricanes and to deal with their consequences. These include new regulatory frameworks for stronger building codes and higher building construction standards; and building national and regional humanitarian warehouses for storing basic necessities and emergency material for swift distribution.
But the measures put in place are plasters for the enlarging sore of climate change that requires a meaningful international response from the large, polluting industrialised countries. No country can prepare for the total devastation of an island such as occurred on Barbuda in 2017. UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, on July 4, made the point: ‘The Caribbean experience makes abundantly clear that we must urgently reduce global emissions and work collectively to ensure that global temperature rise does not go beyond 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels’. In short, Caribbean countries have taken the steps their limited capacity allows. The global polluters, that have worsened hurricanes in the region, should be making a more worthwhile contribution”.
That was my shortened answer. But there is more that should be said. The United Nations forecasts that more than 120 million people could slip into poverty within the next decade because of climate change, forcing them to “choose between starvation and migration”.
Faced with the challenges of living in current conditions, few persons contemplate nightmare scenarios in what looks like the distant future. The problem is that a future, determined by climate change, is no longer distant. Across the world, nations are sleepwalking into the climate catastrophe that lies ahead.
Every time that representatives and negotiators for developing countries and small island states accept that a handout here and there from industrialized nations to “build resilience” is better than nothing, they merely postpone the hour at which their countries will no longer be salvageable.
The negotiators for the industrialised developed nations at the next UN Conference on Climate Change should be told in clear language that they bear responsibility for the damage done to smaller nations by their excessive greenhouse gas emissions and they should provide reparations.
The governments of developing countries, especially small ones, can’t force the governments of industrialised countries to pay, but they should at least trumpet that grudging handouts are not reparations and declare loudly that inadequate funding cannot sustain the future. Polluters should be named and blamed.
As the UN Special Rapporteur pointed out: “Ticking boxes will not save humanity or the planet from impending disaster”.
(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)