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It Has Taken Two Category Five Hurricanes To Bring The Caribbean And Climate Change On To The World's Front Pages

04/10/2017 17:24
NASA NASA / Reuters

As Boris Johnson saw for himself the scale of devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma, during his recent visit to the Caribbean, he might also consider the loss of life and livelihoods elsewhere. The scale of the damage is hard to grasp: 41 million affected by floods in Bangladesh, India and Nepal; a third of Bangladesh under water; £230 million to repair Barbuda alone; and 90% of Dominica's buildings damaged. All of this on top of the immeasurable trauma and loss of life.

Instead of the standard reactions and urgings to adapt to new climate realities, Britain could play an important role in identifying the need for responses that take their lead from the people most directly affected - most of whom would argue that they have not been listened to so far. The President of Kiribati brought the plight of his Pacific island state to the attention of the UN General Assembly in 2004. He had to wait another three years before there was anything like a global consensus on the nature of the problem.

People affected tell of the need for space in global discussions on climate change that takes account of local realities. This means real engagement and involvement in the details of making a global agreement stick. They point to the need for joined up and collaborative approaches to natural resource management that work across national borders as well as locally in the interests of people whose livelihoods depend on those very resources, which include rivers, forests, mangroves and reefs.

Those voices are calling for more ambitious climate targets and joined up thinking on economic and development policies. Fundamentally, they have identified inequality between nations and within nations as a major barrier to addressing the causes and consequences of climate change. The humanitarian crises that follow the passage of these storms are a damning indictment on the lack of agency and urgency in addressing the challenge.

Of the many startling vignettes revealed by the recent storms, the testimony from Dominica's Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit as he recalled his experience of taking cover under a mattress as the roof of his house was torn off by Hurricane Maria was powerful. In that moment there was no distinction made between government and non-governmental. This binary divide prevents us from building the coalitions and alliances needed to make marginalised voices heard.

The Commonwealth and other institutions that are committed to global equity can play a role in helping to convey a sense of urgency and by bringing seemingly disparate governments, politicians, officials, organisations and individuals together. The demand is there and manifests itself in the powerful solidarity between sister member states. To see Antigua and Barbuda reach out to Dominica with an offer of support in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria was humbling.

The platform that the Commonwealth provides for its 30 small states is well documented and has achieved real impact. There is more to do. The floods in South Asia and the drought in Southern Africa tell us that climate change is not solely a small state issue and the Commonwealth provides a platform to identify common cause and foster collaboration across its membership. The Commonwealth Foundation is prepared to play its part - in the first instance by supporting dialogue between affected civil society and their colleagues in government to develop a common agenda.

Boris Johnson will be an important player in the biennial Commonwealth Summit taking place next April 2018, which will be hosted by the British government and will provide a moment to galvanise the international community around more effective responses to climate change. It takes place under the theme "Towards a Common Future" and it will feature discussions on sustainability and climate change. In addition to taking stock of the outcomes of COP23 in Bonn this November, the Summit will provide a moment to forge and consolidate a community for advocacy - one that brings together big and small, government and non-government, north and south. As the Summit's theme suggests, climate change responses call for social justice as much as disaster relief. It also acknowledges that there is work to do in order to achieve this.

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