By Sir Ronald Sanders
The report on May 17, from the World Meteorological Organization, (WMO) that global temperatures are likely to surge to record levels in the next five years should have sent all Caribbean institutions, such as the CARICOM Secretariat, the Caribbean Development Bank, and the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, into overdrive to explore further ways in which the region could accelerate efforts to avert this calamity.
Immediately, there should also have been a loud and collective cry from government ministers, responsible for the environment and climate change, deploring this recent news, and insisting that the world’s biggest emitters of harmful greenhouse gases be held to account. It should further have been made clear that the existential threat, which has been plaguing small island states and countries with low-lying coastlines, is now agonisingly imminent, and that no country will sleepwalk into their own catastrophe. In the latter regard, victim states of climate change and global warming, should have been very vocal in emphasizing that, in their determination to save their own societies, there can be no ideological or other political considerations.
Instead of expressions of outrage, alarm, and anger, there has only been silence at the deeply troubling announcement by the WMO that, “There is a 66% likelihood that the annual average near-surface global temperature between 2023 and 2027 will be more than above pre-industrial levels for at least one year.”
At 1.5°C, conditions will be intolerable for many small states. As the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Gutteres, has repeatedly pointed out, “the alarm bells are deafening and the evidence is irrefutable”: climate change is a “code red for humanity,” and we must use all our resources to build a sense of urgency” to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels.
He and the great body of science have stressed that the failure to meet this target will have certain and catastrophic consequences for humankind as a whole, and Small Island States in particular some of which may vanish as a result of rising sea levels.
Why then, the silence? Is it because the problem is too great to contemplate, yet alone to act; or is it because it is considered undiplomatic to call out countries with whom there are other relations? If it is the latter, then it is misplaced diplomacy. Large countries, especially those who are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have no hesitation on putting small countries on blacklists, damaging their reputations and killing their nascent financial services industries. In other institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) their dominance on governing boards, ensure that their policies of denying some Caribbean counties access to concessional financing, or special and differential treatment in trade, severely limit the possibilities for social development and economic growth.
It is fair game, therefore, for victim states to deploy every possible diplomatic tool to advance their interest, regardless of which countries are identified as the main polluters. It should be evident now, if it wasn’t urgently so before the WMO report, that victim states have virtually run out of time. Therefore, in every council of the UN, the Commonwealth, the Organization of American States, victim states should be finding ways of speaking out collectively and vociferously on this disturbing issue.
And, if it is paralysis that has gripped government officials, generated from what would appear to be the overwhelming nature of the problem, they need shake themselves out of unresponsiveness and dig deep into their creative minds to act strongly and swiftly. They have nothing to lose. The dreadful impact of climate change is no longer creeping up on their peoples and their countries; it is now speeding along.
In the end, the peoples of victim states will hold their political leaders to account first, Inaction will be an indictment.
At best the crippling rise in temperature of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels should not have happened until 2030. Even though that date is only a mere 7 years away, it did present a brief and small space for victim states to formulate a more aggressive survival plan than they have deployed so far. But with the knowledge that, “There is a 98% likelihood that at least one of the next five years, and the five-year period as a whole, will be the warmest on record”, as the WMO report states, even that brief opportunity has narrowed.
The alarm bells should be ringing everywhere and governments should be alerting the business community and non-governmental organisations of every kind to begin the process of building greater resilience to the impact of climate change, as well as joining an international campaign to fight for the rights of victim states.
It is alarming that the initiative by small island states, led by the Prime Ministers of Antigua and Barbuda and Tuvalu, with the support of the leaders of Niue, St Lucia and Vanuatu, to establish a Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law (COSIS) mandated to seek justice for small states, did not receive immediate support from other small states.
Part of COSIS’ mandate is to seek an advisory opinion from the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Persuaded that there is a case to be heard, ITLOS has scheduled a hearing for September 11 in Hamburg, Germany. Leaders of small states do themselves and their countries a disservice by delaying a decision to join the case before ITLOS. After all, it is their future that is at stake and that now hangs thinly in the balance.
Professor Petteri Taalas is the Secretary-General of the WMO. He says: “A warming El Niño is expected to develop in the coming months and this will combine with human-induced climate change to push global temperatures into uncharted territory [-] This will have far-reaching repercussions for health, food security, water management and the environment. We need to be prepared.” But are we?
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(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com)