The news on climate change from the Asia Pacific Economic Summit in Singapore has been sobering, mixed and disappointing. It means that expectations as to what can be achieved at the climate meeting in Copenhagen in December have clearly changed. We are told by some that it is too late to reach a legally binding treaty, and that all the world should hope for is some form of political commitment and framework. This is a low level of ambition, and a crushing disappointment for those for whom climate change is a matter of life and death. It is a betrayal of a universal need for an early solution.
That is why, when Commonwealth Heads of Government meet in Port of Spain at the end of this month, providing that much-needed momentum on climate change will rank high on the agenda.
The Commonwealth has been at the forefront of calls for a stronger, more representative and inclusive system of international environmental governance, in which every voice is heard, and in which all strive towards a collective purpose. The Commonwealth is continuously pursuing a vigorous programme of climate change action. It uses its global networks to advance knowledge and information about the impact of climate change; it empowers countries with the weakest capacity and voice; it promotes innovative methods of financing risk insurance in the countries most vulnerable to disasters brought about by climate change; and it works with other international partners to strengthen countries’ ability to develop indigenous national programmes for adapting to climate change. It is finding new ways to reduce land degradation, and to capture the true value of living forests.
The Commonwealth is home to a disproportionately large number of the countries in the world which are the most vulnerable to climate change. Finding a solution is not simply a matter of addressing a global public good. For climate change “frontline states”, it is a matter of survival. For the people of the Maldives, Tuvalu and Kiribati, climate change represents a profound existential threat. At best, it will mean relocations because of rising sea levels. For the people of Bangladesh, the sight of dark clouds in the sky can always mean the possibility of a repeat of the floods that have already claimed thousands of lives. For many of our African member countries, unpredictable weather patterns have caused millions to go hungry. For our members in the Caribbean, climate change has meant a dramatic increase in the number of times they are hit in the hurricane season.
For these countries, global action to address the consequences must begin now, in earnest, whether Copenhagen succeeds or falls short of original expectations. Developing countries will need funding for adaptation, resources to attract and utilize the technologies needed to adapt to climate change and to shift to a low-carbon future, and initiatives to build local capacity to develop and implement the policies which can help these countries avert catastrophe and build a sustainable future.
Because of the gravity of an issue which cuts across continents and boundaries, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and other leaders are anticipated to join us in Port of Spain. They are recognising the long and painstaking role the Commonwealth has played in managing climate change, and acknowledging the weight of opinion of almost a third of the world’s countries – large and small, rich and poor, and from all sides of the global climate change negotiating table. They also see the critical need for world leadership, to move forward constructively and collectively in resolving this issue.
We cannot allow ourselves to miss this important opportunity to address the most critical security threat of our times. We need some conclusions to drive us forward. Climate change poses a serious and profound risk to us and to future generations. If we don’t act now, present and future generations will not forgive us. As former Secretary-General Sir Shridath Ramphal said before, the Commonwealth cannot negotiate for the world, but it can help the world to negotiate. If we can help broker greater understanding and appreciation of the existential threats posed by climate change, we will in part have played our role. If we can be a broker for the necessary finance, technology and technical assistance needed to help the most vulnerable states fight climate change, we will have gone several steps further.
A fair and representative deal at Copenhagen is also a matter of justice. At present, the voices being heard most on developing rules for addressing climate change are those of the most powerful nations, with the highest emissions. It is inevitable that the deal they reach will pay particular attention to their current and future interests. But it is fair and appropriate for the assembly of nations which write the post-Kyoto treaty to include those at the bottom of the global hierarchy – the ones who have contributed the least to pollution, but who are bearing the brunt of the calamitous effects of climate change, and will bear yet more.
This is a critical moment. We only have a few short years to turn around our development pathway, and to halt and reverse the trend of emissions that are polluting our atmosphere and threatening thousands, perhaps millions, of lives. We must make that start now. We have only one option, and that is to succeed.
Kamalesh Sharma is Secretary-General of the Commonwealth