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Small states must insist on rights to climate change compensation

Sir Ronald Sanders

Sunday, November 05, 2017

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Caribbean small states should be readying themselves for a major joint push to make the 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change a landmark occasion for compensation for the damage caused to them by the world's worst-polluting nations.

COP23 will take place in Bonn, Germany, November 6-17, 2017, and it will be presided over by the Government of Fiji — a Pacific small state with intimate knowledge and experience of the damaging effects of climate change.

The case for compensation for damage to small states as a result of climate change has never been stronger than it is now. The year 2017 has witnessed record-breaking climate disasters across the globe, particularly in the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa. Back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes cut a swathe through the Caribbean in September from which the affected islands will not fully recover for many years to come.

Importantly, these hurricanes have also caused thousands of people — whose homes, schools, hospitals and businesses have been decimated — to seek refuge in other islands. These people are, in effect, 'climate refugees' ripped away from their history, their culture, and their identity. Their plight has been created by ferocious storms not caused by their own actions, but by profligate carbon emissions (CO2) by rich nations.

A World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report, published on October 30, says that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surged at a record-breaking speed in 2016 to the highest level in 800,000 years. According to the report: “The abrupt changes in the atmosphere witnessed in the past 70 years are without precedent.”

The WMO chief, Petteri Taalas, said: “Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions we will be heading for dangerous temperature increases by the end of this century, well above the target set by the Paris climate change agreement.”

In plain speech that means the world is on course for warming beyond the 2 degrees Celsius target, and probably higher than the 3 degrees Celsius that governments loosely mooted last year. At those temperatures, many islands will drown, and coastal areas of mainland countries, including in the US, will be lost.

The possibility of the climate refugees returning to their homes in the short to medium term is remote. But it is not only the refugees that face hardship. The receiving islands are also encumbered with additional costs of unexpectedly providing services for them. The island of Antigua, for instance, is now a haven for the 1,600 inhabitants of Barbuda and another 3,000 from Dominica at costs it can ill afford.

For the independent Caribbean countries, the rebuilding process is daunting; they simply don't have the money. Worse for them is that, because they are measured by the palpably false criteria of high per capita income, they don't have access to aid, grants and concessional loans. Their only prospect for rapid rebuilding is to borrow money on arduous commercial terms that would increase their debt to unsustainable levels. In any event, it would be impossible for them to borrow the huge sums that rebuilding requires. The damage on Barbuda, for instance, is approximately 14.2 per cent of the gross domestic product of Antigua and Barbuda; on Dominica it is more than 100 per cent.

Without international assistance, the levels of economic development and social improvement that they had achieved, prior to hurricanes Irma and Maria, will take many years to re-establish.

This disastrous situation, coupled with the fact that climate change is now forcing people from their land and their homes, makes concerted action by small states imperative at COP23 in Bonn.

The message clearly has to be that small island states and countries with low coastal areas are being irreparably damaged, and their people are being made refugees by the rich, polluting nations of the world who must face up to their obligations to pay compensation for the damage they have so far caused and agree to tackle climate change meaningfully now.

Even if, year after year, Caribbean and Pacific islands expend huge sums of money on rebuilding infrastructure, homes, businesses, hospitals, schools, airports and sea ports to higher standards of resilience, they remain vulnerable to continuous climate destruction, and increasing numbers of climate refugees, until such time as the world's polluters curb CO2 emissions and halt climate change.

That message must be delivered in Bonn in a united, strong and loud voice by small states. And strong alliances have to be forged with organisations such as Oxfam and Greenpeace. It is time that the polluters are made to face up to the destruction and dislocation they are causing, and resolve in a legally binding way to stop.

In the meantime, these very polluting countries that control the world's financial system, including the international financial institutions, should put in place immediate measures to compensate damaged countries. They should also provide access to the funding that small states urgently need to make themselves better prepared for the destructive climate demons that have already been unleashed upon them.

The immediate measures should include: forgiveness of debt owed by small states to other governments and international financial institutions, or rescheduling of such debt over longer repayment periods at nominal interest; assumption by developed nations of commercial debts to institutions in their countries, including Paris Club debt; payment of premiums for disaster insurance by governments; access to grants and highly concessional loans from the international financial institutions that must set new criteria for eligibility, casting away per capita income as a basis of judgement and replacing it with more meaningful measurements of need.

Small countries, damaged by the excessive pollution of large and rich nations, should not be compelled to cope by themselves with the unemployment, poverty, inequality, disease, dislocation of people, and the refugee communities created as consequences of climate change.

Small states should go to Bonn determined to raise their voices in complaint, to point fingers at where blame lies, and to insist on compensation that is their due.

The planet Earth is shared by all mankind, not by a few. Its bounty is the common property of all nations, not only the rich; the burden of its care must fall to all, not primarily to the small and vulnerable.

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's ambassador to the US, Organisation of American States, and high commissioner to Canada; an international affairs consultant; as well as senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He previously served as ambassador to the European Union and the World Trade Organization and as high commissioner to the UK. The views expressed are his own. For responses and to view previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com.

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