The Caribbean: Confronting its demons

Sir Ronald Sanders

Sunday, December 09, 2018

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Had the meeting of Caricom governments on the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) been the only event affecting the Caribbean in the first week of December, it would have been a week to celebrate. But, it was also a week when global emissions of carbon dioxide reached such high levels that the future of Caribbean countries is now almost irreversibly endangered.

The last sentence is not hyperbole.

The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres took one glance at the frightening increase, by 1.6 per cent, of global emissions in 2017 and a terrifying projected rise by 2.7 per cent in 2018, to declare: “We are in deep trouble.” He was speaking at the opening of the 24th annual UN climate conference in Poland.

These figures put the entire Caribbean — island states and countries with vulnerable coastal areas — at greater risk than has been forecast. The commitment adopted in 2015 in Paris, by nearly 200 governments, to limit the rise in global temperatures to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times has become the nightmare many feared.

There has already been an increase of about one degree Celsius — a rise in just one more degree will drown many small islands and coastal areas, wiping out tourism and important aspects of maritime production. Human habitats will also be disrupted, creating refugees both from states and within them.

No doubt, with this knowledge deeply implanted in his mind, Antigua and Barbuda's prime minister, Gaston Browne, was unhesitant in telling a high-level meeting at the United Nations on middle-income countries, also this week, that: “Climate change must be recognised as the demon that it is. The world's worst polluters must admit that it is they who have unleashed this demon, and it is they who must commit to containing and stopping it; not just in words, but in deeds, especially by delivering the necessary adaptation and mitigation financing.”

He was clear that “unless such a commitment becomes a binding commandment and climate change is halted, no amount of resilience building will help”.

But, over the last three years since the Paris accord — about which there were many critics (me included) — for its non-binding and mostly aspirational nature, key governments have openly withdrawn from their pledges to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and the promise of the necessary funding to build resilience and adaptation infrastructure has not been fulfilled.

Undoubtedly, the global climate conference running from December 2 to 14 will declare itself a great success in a lengthy declaration. However, to be truly successful, legally enforceable commitments must be made by every country, not only to cutting current global emissions by more than half by 2030, but also to put up the money that is urgently required. I doubt that will happen.

The UN secretary general and his battery of climate scientists and experts don't appear to hold out much hope for the Poland meeting either. They are already organising a UN climate change conference for September 2019 under the title, 'A race we can win; a race we must win'. The desperation suggested by the second half of the title contradicts the optimism expressed in its first half.

Interestingly, coincidental with the opening of the climate conference in Poland, Jamaica's Prime Minister Andrew Holness and France's President Emmanuel Macron published a joint letter in the US newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, calling for the private sector “to get in the front seat with world governments to avert a climate crash”.

Laudable as that appeal might be, there are far too many powerful private companies whose profits depend on greenhouse gas emissions. They will not readily get into any 'front seat' unless constrained to do so by regulation and penalties, or enticed by even bigger profits. Neither is likely to happen.

It is against that background that, at last, the engine of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), which has been on “pause” for a decade, was revved into action at a Heads of Government Conference held in Trinidad — at least on paper.

The conference, at which it appears only six of the 14 Caricom heads of government were present, issued a most impressive declaration that, if nothing else, reasserts the CSME as “the most viable platform for supporting growth and development in the member states of Caricom”. For me, it is not a coincidence that this renewed recognition of the CSME has come under the stewardship of Mia Mottley, the new prime minister of Barbados. The CSME had withered and was in danger of a lamentable death under her indifferent predecessor, who, like she now does, had the lead responsibility for it among the Caricom heads of government.

Now, it has been imbued with a new sense of relevance and importance, and its decision-making council has been expanded to include the long-overdue participation of the private sector and labour. In the heyday of Caricom, such participation was the norm, later abandoned by insecure governments on the mantra that, “The people elected me, not you,” as if election, by itself, accords wisdom and knowledge in all things.

Apart from restructuring the dormant Commission on the Economy “to advise member states on a growth agenda for the community”, the declaration indicates that “full, free movement of people” has, once again, risen to a priority of government action, even though there is an ominous reference to “those member states so willing”, suggesting that not all have come to terms with the limitations on employment, investment and growth in which smallness entraps them.

What the declaration says the Governments have agreed to do are small steps. Some may not be achieved, but it is crucially important to this region of small, vulnerable states that the governments have returned, in any measure, to an agenda of regional integration which, they say, they are committed to advance at the national level.

The countries of Caricom need integration in today's hostile world more than ever before. The dark clouds that threaten ravaging storms are not only about climate change. There is more besides.

 

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's ambassador to the US, Organization 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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