"Small Islands and Climate Change" - Parliamentarian Magazine Article
This was my article published in "Parliamentarian" magazine this month. I will be attending COP26 to represent the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Committee on Climate Change. I have been working with them for a while and with parliamentarians from around the world. The clear messages are that we have a role to play as a small island and that the time to act is now. I hope you can take the time to read this.
I live on an island of nine by five miles in the English Channel. Jersey has a strong economy and a vast amount of wealth travelling through the island, a position not shared by some small island states and communities. It is a beautiful island, with coastal environments unique to us and stunning areas of beauty packed into this tiny space. However, as with many small island states, we face significant threats from climate change. We are currently in the political and social process of deciding how we will address the challenges we face and where we fit into the wider world in terms of what we do and the timescales within which we work.
My involvement in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Climate Change Working Group, convened by the CPA UK Branch, has enabled me to have an even greater focus on the threats we face and has amplified the plight of small island communities worldwide as we see changes to our climate. Speaking to a fellow group member from Kiribati brought these issues sharply into focus. Kiribati is a group of 33 Pacific atolls that lie just 1.8 metres (or 6 feet) above sea level at the highest point. It is recognised as one of the top six countries that will be most impacted by climate change. To these islanders, and all who live in small island communities, climate change is very real and an issue that needs to be addressed now. Indeed, it needed to be addressed many years ago.
The reality is that we face an existential threat to our communities. One that has taken many years to develop but leaves us with a short window of opportunity if we are to act and have the significant positive impacts that are needed. We all hope we are not too late, but the very phrase ‘existential threat’ is almost impossible to process for many, particularly, it appears, those who amass great wealth. The smallness of these islands brings another challenge. Individually, our direct contribution to climate-changing emissions can be seen as insignificant compared to larger countries worldwide.
As the world attempts to address our impact, many small communities may face calls to wait until the large emitters act before we take on the economic challenge of changing our infrastructure. Indeed, small island states may face significant infrastructure and economic challenges before the issues of climate change are considered. And, of course, COVID-19 has provided another serious economic challenge to us all. There are huge inequalities across jurisdictions that unless addressed, will lead to growing divisions within and between countries. It is always the poorest in our societies that suffer most, and climate change will certainly amplify this effect.
It is these issues that have driven the Commonwealth Parliamentary Climate Change Working Group, and served as a vehicle to bring voices from across the world together to share commonalities in the experience of addressing climate change. So, is it realistic for those who create the least impact to spend perhaps a larger proportion of their wealth on addressing the threat of climate change? And is it even possible? A quick search will produce the top 5 CO2 emitters and contributors to climate change:
2. United States of America.
4. The Russian Federation.
It also appears that Bhutan is the only carbon negative country in the world.
So, should we simply be looking to the highest polluting countries to address their emissions? The simple answer is yes but we must also play our part and drive the change we expect of others. We can consider that when we combine the impact of all small island states we will see a significant impact on climate emissions. Perhaps considering small islands together should be in our mindset. Collectively there is an impact from our emissions, but there is also a huge impact from the political voices of those on the front line of climate change such as our colleagues in Kiribati. It was small island states that drove the initial calls for climate action. This must not be forgotten. Collectively we have a voice that holds an important key to unlocking change.
What can we do as small islands? We must involve our communities. In Jersey, a climate change emergency was declared following a proposition I brought to the States Assembly.
Part of the action taken (and we have so much more to do) was the formation of a citizen’s assembly. This exercise in community involvement involved a panel taken from across our population. The process of sortition was used to get a panel reflective of the community. The panel produced a report with recommendations on several areas specific to Jersey as an island, including a majority of the panel approving the target of carbon neutrality by 2030. And that is the key. An informed and intelligent discussion looking at both the international threats from climate change and the specific island threats we face. Then looking at the actions we can take as islanders to address our impact and change our society. I have referenced this report and it is an interesting read. I hope you will take the time to think about the process. This is not a perfect answer. And indeed, the political will to implement these and other far-reaching recommendations is still not evident.
There remain vocal opponents to action due to the economic impact it may have. This short-term view is difficult to combat and is a distraction from the larger long-term issues we must address. The protection of wealth is still a more powerful political driver than the protection of our planet. The failure to act now will leave us some stark choices for our future populations. How will we accommodate climate refugees whose homes will be lost as the impacts worsen? Will we accept the wholesale loss of island communities and the rich cultures they hold?
In this article for The Parliamentarian, I have avoided mentioning previous climate change agreements and declarations of action. There is one simple reason: we have not taken the action we need to if we are serious about addressing climate change. And so, it is what we do now and in the future that is key; the action we take as communities no matter what our size. It is this that I want to emphasise. As a resident of a small island community and a political representative, I want to urge all islands to act. Individually we know where our main emissions come from. We know our societies and the economies that support them. Collectively we must be honest about the inequalities faced and be courageous in supporting economies that share the threat but not the financial clout to address it. Technological developments must be supported and shared. Small islands can act as model economies that are future-proofed and carbon negative. Just like Bhutan. And just as with raising the issues initially, we can lead the way for larger countries to adopt these models for their towns and cities.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Climate Change Working Group is one voice in the cacophony of groups concerned with climate. But we have voices from across the planet, from huge countries to tiny islands. And sharing ideas and exerting political pressure is vital and has an urgency that has never been so clear. I want this group to be a voice for those small islands that will be massively impacted by climate change. We have a moral responsibility to act as much as the large polluters and the time to do so is now. COP26 is looming. Will it be another summit with declarations not worth quoting in future pieces written on climate change? Or will we see genuine action taken with the urgency needed?
There is a native American proverb that states “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” It seems that we have borrowed the earth and proceeded to trash it. So, like the responsible member of the family that realises the parents are returning home and the house is in chaos, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get on with sorting the mess. One of the most reassuring parts of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Climate Change Working Group is the involvement of young people from the Commonwealth Youth Climate Change Network. Listening to their voices and determination to make change gives me hope. The energy of youth is infectious and much appreciated. I am a parent and was a teacher before I was elected. I spent my career encouraging young people to look to the future and be successful in whatever way they wanted. I have children who are now in their twenties and looking ahead. It is for them that I continue to work. My generation is guilty of reckless exploitation of our planet. It is time to change this – one small island at a time if needs be. Or, as one young Swedish woman who has been so influential so succinctly stated. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say – we will never forgive you.”
We sit on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Climate Change Working Group as Parliamentarians. We must take our voices back to our Parliaments and pressure for action. We will look to do exactly this at COP26 so that the summit is more than just words and that small islands worldwide have a future. It is certainly one worth fighting for.
Deputy Rob Ward