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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.

The nature of news is such that as we try to fathom the devastation wrought by Irma and Maria, the loss of life and livelihoods caused by the recent flooding in South Asia seem dim and distant. 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.

Will these facts move the international community beyond the standard reactions and urgings to adapt to new climate realities? The Commonwealth and like-minded institutions 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.

Aware that established international ways and means were not getting the message across, cultural activists in the Caribbean used song, poetry and performance as part of the 1.5 to Stay Alive campaign in support of the region’s position at COP21 in Paris two years ago. This called for a legally binding agreement, applicable to all, and ensuring that greenhouse gas emissions stop at levels that limit the global average temperature increase to well below 1.5° Celsius by 2100.

‘Whether they are Presidents or Poets those unheard voices tell us that change is needed.’

Whether they are Presidents or Poets those unheard voices tell us that change is needed. This means getting at the root causes of storms and floods, the likes of which we’ve never seen. The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” has been a rallying cry for the Global South since 1992 and if the argument in favour of calling to account those doing the most damage needed further support it can surely be found in the events of the last month.

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.

‘Senior officials arguing the case for small states in climate change discussions are strengthened by the advocacy undertaken by their counterparts from civil society.’

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 political leaders and senior officials arguing the case for small states in climate change discussions are strengthened by the advocacy undertaken by their counterparts from civil society.

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.

Next year’s Commonwealth Summit, hosted by the United Kingdom 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. It’s a good opportunity to articulate “non-binary” positions that draw on the common concerns of diverse partners. 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.

Image credit: Flickr CC Cayobo

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