Photo: Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister, Allen Chastanet Speaking at the first-ever United Nations Trade Forum, organized by UNCTAD in Geneva, Switzerland, from 9 to 13 September 2019. Credit: Timothy Sullivan (UNCTAD) - Photo: 2019

Extinction ‘Imminent’ for Small Islands

By Sean Buchanan

NEW YORK | GENEVA (IDN) – Islands are often emblazoned across tourism pamphlets, glorified as the epitome of natural beauty and portrayed as idyllic places of escape. But this image is far from the dark reality they face.

Changes in sea level, temperature, precipitation, a growing number of extreme storms and floods, visible vulnerability of critical infrastructure such as ports and airports, growing unpredictability, and the fact that there is nowhere to go, is a daily threat for the 65 million people living in 57 small island developing states (SIDS) scattered throughout the world’s oceans.

For years now, small island nations have been calling for global help to cope with the climate crisis unfolding in their backyard, as their ability to respond is curtailed by lack of finance. Most recently, Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister, Allen Chastanet, told the United Nations Trade Forum (September 9-13) that SIDS need urgent help and gave a chilling warning: “Our extinction is imminent.”

Speaking before the gathering, Chastanet said that “the climate crisis has taken away from us the ability to control our own destiny. There are not many more storms that we can sustain and remain viable. Therefore, the urgency is now for us to be able to build resilience.”

He emphasised that the world needs to decide whether they want SIDS to exist and to offer an investment to match it.

“What am I speaking about is drains, rivers, and bridges. These are civil engineering matters; it is not going to the moon. This (investment) is not, in relative terms, a huge amount of money, but relative to the size of our economies, for us it is a mountain too far. I speak to you as a human to say the SIDS need your help.”

“Climate change is not our responsibility,” he continued. “The SIDS represent less than one percent of global emissions. But we can’t control our destiny through mitigation. The fact is, the only thing available to us is adaptation.”

Adaptation costs money. Under the Paris Agreement on climate, countries have committed to jointly mobilizing 100 billion dollars per year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries, including SIDS, but this funding has not yet reached the SIDS, said Chastanet.

To mobilise the required billions to help SIDS survive the climate emergency, he called for both a revisioning of the classification of SIDS using a vulnerability index and a type of Marshall Plan.

He was joined by fellow island representatives from the Maldives and Jamaica, and the climate and trade community on the opening day of the week-long forum.

Participants explored the linkages between trade, climate change, oceans economy and biodiversity. They exchanged innovative ideas and approaches on how global trade policies may support the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

No man is an island

“What’s happening today to small island developing states will happen tomorrow to all of us,” Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland told the forum. “No one is safe from the threat of climate change.”

UNCTAD Chief Mukhisa Kituyi
UNCTAD Chief Mukhisa Kituyi

The situation is a matter of survival. “For a long time, we’ve been talking about climate change mitigation and resilience. We’re now at a point where we’re talking about survival,” UNCTAD Secretary-General, Mukhisa Kituyi, told the over 200 attendees gathered to discuss how trade can play a greater role as part of the climate solution.

Part of this solution is to introduce trade more prominently into the climate discussion. But the role of trade, which does not feature the Paris Agreement, is still not central despite its impacts on carbon emissions and mitigation.

“To face the climate crisis, we need all of us, all our tools and means. Trade cannot be a bystander,” said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, director of UNCTAD’s division on international trade and commodities.

“The omnipresence of trade means that it cannot be left out of any climate policy. And it also means that sustainability cannot be an afterthought of trade policy but must be an inherent part of it,” she added.

A human emergency

Chastanet pushed aside his formal address to speak from the heart and humanise the tragedy as yet another devastating hurricane season hits the Caribbean.

He told of the devastation he had seen in Abaco and Grand Bahama following the category 5 Hurricane Dorian, and earlier destruction in Dominica and Haiti.

It brought home not only the need for climate mitigation and preparedness, but also “post-preparedness”, he said. “We can respond to an emergency, but we have to go back to the drawing board to deal with what the post-preparedness is going to be.

“Is the Bahamas, for example, ready to migrate 50,000 people into Nassau? Is it ready to process those people by documenting them, putting them into new school systems, creating a subsidy system because they have lost their jobs and that part of the economy (tourism) is gone?” he asked.

“The requirement for normal primary surplus, is now dwarfed by the fact that we have to have sufficient resources to deal with the (extreme weather event) aftermath,” he said.

Chastanet was echoed by the Maldives’ minister of environment, Hussain Rasheed Hassan, who said the world must “find a way to improve our resilience to deal with the impending catastrophe and adapt”.

“Are we going to relocate to some distant land and become climate refugees? As far as we are concerned, we do not want to become climate refugees,” Hassan said.

Daryl Vaz, Jamaica’s minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, told the forum that “climate change is a clear and present danger to our existence. The climate change threat sends a signal to leaders to step up to the plate and face this challenge head on.”

The SIDS will collectively present their solution, in the form of a SIDS Foundation, to the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit at UN headquarters in New York on September 23.

The proposed foundation would act as a special purpose vehicle for post-disaster reconstruction and adaptation and would pull on sovereign funds for official development assistance for all SIDS to help them ready for a new normality. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 September 2019]

Photo: Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister, Allen Chastanet Speaking at the first-ever United Nations Trade Forum, organized by UNCTAD in Geneva, Switzerland, from 9 to 13 September 2019. Credit: Timothy Sullivan (UNCTAD)

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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