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Walton Webson: For us, climate change is life and death

The chair of the Alliance of Small Island States on the climate finance needs of some of the world's smallest countries.

By Elizabeth Meager

For the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis) and its 39 members, the climate crisis is no distant threat. These communities have long faced the lethal combination of slow-onset events like rising sea levels and ocean acidification, along with the yearly cycle of hurricanes, cyclones and excess rainfall, all of which are becoming more extreme every year.

With the effects of climate change a clear and immediate danger, Aosis was established in 1990 to represent the interests of small island and low-lying coastal developing states on the global stage. The association’s members – which include much of the Caribbean, Fiji, the Maldives, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Singapore, among others – are responsible for less than 1 per cent of global historic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Yet for too long they have been left largely on their own to cope with the already catastrophic impact of those emissions.

According to the Economic Vulnerability Index, small island developing states (Sids) are the most economically vulnerable countries worldwide – both when it comes to the climate crisis and in general, largely because of their lack of diversification. They make up two-thirds of the nations that suffer the highest relative losses from natural disasters at a cost of between 1 and 9 per cent of their GDP every year. They also tend to be heavily reliant on imports and are less likely to have diversified economies, with tourism – itself decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic – often making up the biggest chunk of national revenues.

Aosis’s current chair is the Antigua and Barbudan diplomat Walton “Aubrey” Webson, whose 30-year career has featured roles at the Perkins School for the Blind and Helen Keller International, as well as a 2017 stint as president of the executive board of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef). He is also ambassador and permanent representative to the UN for Antigua and Barbuda. This year’s Cop is far from his first rodeo.

“In many ways we [Sids] are the guardians of the Paris Agreement, because for us it’s life and death: it’s the reality of sustained livelihoods within a society or losing not just livelihoods but losing people and land, and the danger of becoming extinct – some islands will be swallowed up unless something happens,” says Webson. “These aren’t just words; this is a fact.”

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Ahead of November’s Cop27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, the world was facing a triple threat of crises, says Webson: climate, Covid-19, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many countries, particularly those in the Global South, are constantly playing catch-up to rebuild from the unrelenting effects of the climate disaster, alongside the public health crisis wrought by Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, which has rapidly become a global food crisis. But these catastrophes must not derail governments’ focus on the climate crisis, he adds. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global GHG emissions must peak before 2025 at the latest and be slashed by nearly half by 2030.

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[See also: What is on the agenda at Cop27 in Egypt?]

At previous United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) gatherings there has been too much talk and nowhere near enough action, says Webson. Rich countries turn up, make grand statements that too often are not backed up by policy, then come back the following year and do it all again. “We make great promises. Many [world leaders] give good soundbites and speeches, but we’ve heard it all now – it’s about implementing,” says Webson.

Loss and damage finance will be a key focus of this year’s summit, including insurance schemes as part of mitigation efforts. Some groundwork was laid at Cop26 in Glasgow last year – including the creation of the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage – but there is plenty more to be done. Sids are heading to Egypt with some clear, concrete demands. As Aosis points out, these requests are essentially unchanged since the UNFCCC process began in 1994: access to grant-based or, at the very least, concessional finance for both adaptation and mitigation.

According to the OECD, Sids are able to access just 2 per cent of the total climate finance being provided today, which itself falls far short of the minimum $100bn per year promised in 2009: the annual total reached a high of $80bn in 2019. One issue is around how it’s categorised, with no clear rules in place – for instance, some call it climate finance, while others call it humanitarian aid, official development assistance, or something else altogether. Burden-sharing could also be better addressed, says Webson, as the current system is highly unfair, with contributions waxing and waning depending on the politics of the donor country at the time.

This year Aosis has drawn up plans for a Loss and Damage Response Fund, which would operate as an entity of the UNFCCC and centralise both public and private finance sources to help developing countries rebuild following climate-related disasters. Governments would apply to the fund for support for a range of activities, from critical infrastructure repairs to the restoration of health services. “Even though there is an entire article [Article 8 of the Paris Agreement] addressing loss and damage, we still don’t have a fit-for-purpose funding arrangement,” says Michai Robertson, Aosis climate finance adviser and policy officer within the Antigua and Barbuda government.

Of the limited finance that has historically been made available, too much of it is made up of concessional loans, which condemns developing countries to an ever-growing pile of national debt. “We are still using mostly our own funds for adaptation and resilience, which is just not enough – and it traps us in a vicious cycle where our development is slowed, and we get into more debt because, before we have rebuilt, a new extreme event happens,” says Robertson.

Aosis’s proposal is not a panacea, but it would begin to address loss and damage in the right way, he adds, and innovative financing arrangements – like debt-for-climate swaps, and de-risking or guarantee instruments – could be part of it.

Aosis says small island states are doing more than their bit to mitigate the risks of the climate crisis to their economies. And while the non-financial contributions of richer countries are welcome, they often miss the point: what Sids really need is money. For instance, says Robertson, the conversation is often focused on early-warning systems for extreme weather events like hurricanes, with increasingly sophisticated and expensive solutions being proposed. Yet cultural practices have prepared generations of Caribbean people for hurricane season for centuries.

“All my life I’ve had songs in the back of my head about battening down the hatches in hurricane season – we’ve been doing this for so long,” says Robertson. “Many countries already have great systems in place, and besides, if you know a hurricane is coming at you, a warning system is only so useful. We can’t move our island out into the ocean. So we have to be careful in how we talk about this. We’re doing well more than our fair share.”

In a sense Sids, which are almost always the first to suffer at the hands of extreme weather events, are themselves the world’s early-warning system for the climate crisis. Yet year after year their warnings go unheeded. Robertson says that in the same vein, because of their small size, helping Sids to justly transition to a low-carbon economy now can provide a future model for bigger economies.

Climate risk insurance can provide various solutions to crisis-hit countries, whether it’s risk sharing and transferring to unlock more financing, or providing the funds to help rebuild following a disaster – but its usefulness is highly limited. “Insurance companies are private entities and they know all too well the risks Sids face, and that those risks are not good for their bottom line,” says Robertson.

And as the intensity of extreme weather events worsens over time, the tools become even less effective. For instance, in 2007 the Caribbean pioneered the first regional catastrophe risk insurance facility (CCRIF), which was designed to assist in the event of hurricanes, earthquakes and excessive rainfall. The damage wrought by 2017’s category 5 Hurricane Maria caused damage to the tiny island of Dominica equivalent to an estimated 225 per cent of GDP – yet the CCRIF’s payout was equivalent to just over 3 per cent.

“In my mind there is an even more fundamental problem with insurance, and that is simply: should the people, who are being forced into increasingly vulnerable situations by events beyond their control, have to pay for their own protection?” says Janine Felson, Belize’s UN ambassador and senior adviser to Aosis. “If that is expected of them, they will always be [suffering] a loss.”

For small island states, this is not just about survival, however. “We’re also talking about the ability of our islands to thrive as nations, recognising the historic and contemporary struggles we face – including colonialism, slavery and the degradation of our cultures and resources,” says Webson.

“This is a climate disaster that we have inherited as a result of other countries’ actions, yet we are the ones paying the price, and it is putting our whole humanity at risk. So we are going to Sharm el-Sheikh with the issue of loss and damage as a major agenda item, but what we are really talking about is surviving – and thriving.”

This article is a part of a series exploring what we need from Cop27. See more in the series here.

[See also: Climate finance: Who pays to close the inequality gap?]