Climate change and island nations: A special lecture was delivered by Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, former President of the Republic of Mauritius, on December 17, 2021 where she spoke on the topic, ‘The voice of small island nations in the sustainability debate: What lies ahead of us’, at the Global Policy Diplomacy and Sustainability (GPODS) Fellowship. Edited excerpts of her conversation with Arpit Chaturvedi, co-director, GPODS.
Q: Your Excellency, we are talking about small islands and the voices of nations like Mauritius. Do you think that large countries are doing enough to safeguard the interests of small island nations in the face of climate change events such as rise in sea levels?
A: In the last two years, we saw what the word interest means and why the interest of some countries mattered more than what is happening to the rest of humanity. I am not a pessimist, but a realist and we are a small island state. We constituted a group of 30 countries across the world that is in the forefront of action against climate change. The same goes for the rest of Africa which doesn’t exceed 5% of global emissions.
We are the victims of the climate change and bear the brunt of extreme climate change events. Small islands may just disappear as the sea level rises. Maldives is just about 4-5 meters above the sea level so any increase in water level will mean disappearance of quite a few beautiful beaches in the country. There are countries like Tuvalu, which is negotiating with Fiji to relocate the population. If you look COP26, I would like to mention the speech by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley who said the pledges made at the Paris meet in 2015 are yet to be delivered.
She mentioned the investment gap of more than $25 billion dollars which is not charity by any means. Why was the green fund created in the first place? Because the forests that actually ensure the oxygen supply mostly are in the global south. When we say we need the green thumb, we need access to technology for transition to greener ways of doing business.
Professor Das Gupta of Cambridge University tried to put a value on ecosystem services that nature gives us for free. He came to the figure of $100-125 trillion per year. Island states occupy less than 2% of the world’s surface and yet contribute over 40% of the ecosystemic services. The closer we get to nature the more we destroy our forests. We need to put our heads together and realize that the green dollar is all good but it’s not enough to save us from ourselves.
Missing leadership in war on climate change
Q: Do you think the north-south argument is diluting the debate for the nations that are affected the most such as Barbados and Mauritius? Also, what is the contingency plan if at all the worst happens that some of these countries gets submerged?
A: Let’s go back to the basics. What has been our development model so far, how did we reach where we are today in terms of emissions? All this started with the Industrial Revolution and then it has been incremental. Our entire business model has been pushed by the north and this is something great thinkers like Keynes said. We talk about GDP; it is all based on extraction and destruction. We haven’t changed that model.
It’s still there and will always be there because every time we talk about progress, we talk about GDP growth is. And who has driven the agenda? Of course, the past colonial powers and those countries that shaped the international agenda through setting up of the multilateral institutions. We now have emerging countries. They say why should we not pollute because that has been the way economies have grown. Look at the way the resolution was watered down at COP26.
I am not going to mention the big players for obvious reasons. It’s a blame game and there is no leadership. Since the World War II , it was a bipolar world and now we’re going to be multipolar. So where are we going to get that leadership? We need to go back to the United Nations, but there has to be some reform. If we adopt the same playbook we used for Covid, the situation is going to be dire in the face of climate change.
Q: Absolutely. I think this sort of a mutual bickering is at the root of this lack of cohesion. Jonathon Cummings has a follow-up question to this…
Jonathon Cummings: I want to pivot the conversation a little bit about what you said earlier. I’m just bringing in a little bit of the private sector lands here. Can you talk a little bit about how small island nations can enable the private sector and encourage investments into greener economy and sustainable technologies?
A: We have one million people here in Mauritius. If you look at a country like Barbados it is just under 300,000. We are a small group, but we can try and restore the ecosystems to create a greener and safer planet. For the transition to a greener ecosystem, we need collaborations to provide fantastic ocean sinks to absorb greenhouse gas emissions. When we say the ecosystem is restored means that the whales, the biggest absorbers of carbon, will be swimming freely.
I am trying to push for is a system where there is much better cooperation north-south cooperation. Th ecosystem matters — this is the branch on which we’re all sitting. Having said this I will again put another caveat here; the private sector wants to push for greener technologies. Greener technologies will depend on resources, minerals.
These minerals again come from developing countries. If we look at the transition to green energy, we are going to look at the rare elements. We want the corporations that are exploiting the resources in the south to pay taxes because we need the revenues to drive our economies.
The reason why we see a lot of interest in climate change is that the north is now experiencing the effects. We are seeing forest fires in Seattle, Australia, Greece. Now people are talking. Now just look at the floods happen in India and Bangladesh every year. Nobody talks about it. But when you see New York city flooded, we see a lot of discussion. Let us be honest with ourselves, there is only one planet there is no planet B.
Rule-based global organisations key
Q: Thank you. Let me bring the discussion back to what you were saying about the UN reforms. How do we instill equitable representation in international bodies?
A: There has been a lot of criticism about UN. Even the WHO faced a lot of flack recently but if you look at the way the system has been designed, they operate within a remit. Let us have a rule-based organization where people adhere to rules. If a treaty has been approved at the level of the UN with 194 countries ratifying it, why should one or two countries not sign or ratify it? The Trump administration moved out of WHO right in the midst of a crisis.
Q: We should look at the real action on the ground by various nations and not just what conventions they are signing. The race to net zero is being talked about a lot. My concern is that there are too many ambiguities in defining what is net zero. Is it going to be another green washing agenda?
A: The deadline for net zero is 2050 or 2060 for many countries. But do you think nature is going to adhere to our agenda or our deadlines? The scientist is already saying that we have reached a tipping point. Look at the glaciers that are melting and see the impact on rivers such as the Indus and the Mekong. All big rivers are going to experience that. We have to just accept that we need to move fast and go beyond the rhetoric.
Amid the rhetoric about net zero, we need to ensure that the poorer countries get all the support. We still have not learned the lessons of past pandemic. If we haven’t learnt the lesson from the pandemic, I don’t think we are learning anything at all. Africa is going to be youngest continent by 2050, providing human capital to the rest of the world. So it is in our interest to invest in transformation of human resources so that we can then be looked upon as a credible partner.
Q: I agree that the solutions will have to be found regionally and that’s the reason why Global Policy Insights, our think tank, is focused on regional cooperation. My last question to you is that, is there any argument for being hopeful amid the whole climate change crisis. Is there any reason for hope?
A: The human race is an amazing race. It can bounce back. We have shown amazing resilience. We have been through many such problems in the past. Now I think we are much more empowered. We have the tools that we need to help us pull ourselves together so that we can leave a legacy for our kids. I mean this is what it’s all about at the end of the day, to leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren.
I am an eternal optimist, but we need to change our mindset. We need to stop that rat race we have got into and educate our kids that the only way forward is when we start sharing and when we start really helping our fellow global citizens. I am a product of migration. Let us come to terms with the fact that we are products of migration. Migration brings diversity, migrations brings cultures and enriches our social fabric. Activistic xenophobia is not the order of the day, so let us rethink our purpose on this planet.
Arpit Chaturvedi: Thank you Your Excellency for being so detailed and candid. This is something that we value a lot in our fellowship and it has been an absolute privilege and pleasure to have you over here with us.