/ 24 June 2024

Commonwealth urges immediate action to support vulnerable island nations

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Uwen Garae surveys his destroyed house on March 16, 2015 in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Cyclone Pam hit the South Pacific islands with hurricane-force winds, huge ocean swells and flash flooding. (Photo by Dave Hunt-Pool/Getty Images)

In the past few weeks, more than 100 people have died from the oppressive heat in India.

In Africa, while some countries are experiencing torrential rains, others are suffering from terrible droughts. 

At the recent Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, collectively we considered how climate change is increasing the incidence of vector-borne diseases — not only spreading malaria but other dangerous diseases, such as the recent dengue outbreak in Samoa.  

Commonwealth leaders have been calling for global action on climate change since 1989, before a process for international negotiations even existed. In line with their calls, climate scientists have long warned the world of the need to limit global warming to 1.5°C to avoid dangerous tipping points which could lead to irreversible damage.

Worryingly, in February 2024, we breached this critical milestone. Global temperatures surpassed 1.5°C over the previous 12 months, making it the hottest year on record. 

The World Meteorological Organisation warns this record could be smashed again this year, which will lead to the loss of more lives and livelihoods and place national systems and services under intense pressure.  

This pressure is disproportionately borne by Small Island Developing States (SIDS). 

Despite making up only 3% of the world’s land area, the SIDS are vital for the whole of humanity and the planet we share. 

They safeguard 11.5% of the ocean’s exclusive economic zones, which include 7 out of 10 coral hotspots, and 20% of all terrestrial bird, plant and reptile species.  

Yet SIDS experience five times more climate-attributable deaths due to extreme weather events, and when shocks hit, our SIDS are hit hard. 

A cyclone, or a hurricane, can knock a small or vulnerable country off its growth trajectory for years, if not decades. In 2017, hurricane Maria devastated my own country of birth, Dominica, taking 225% of its GDP with it.  

In 2019, shortly after Dorian, the most powerful hurricane to ever hit the Bahamas, tore through the island nation I visited the northern islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama. I was heartbroken at seeing what I could then only describe as a war zone.

Last year, Vanuatu was devastated by category 5 cyclone Lola, which hit seven months after twin cyclones Judy and Kevin had wiped out 50% of its GDP.

The damage of these shocks is deepened by the lack of adequate financial support. 

Despite contributing only 1% of all global carbon dioxide emissions, SIDS struggle to unlock climate finance. In 2019, they had access to only $1.5 billion out of the $100 billion pledged to developing countries.

With no alternative, these countries are often left with no option but to obtain financing on unfavourable terms, resulting in high debt burdens, creating a vicious cycle where debt becomes unsustainable and access to finance becomes even more limited.

The Commonwealth is home to two-thirds of the world’s SIDS, and this exceptional convergence of hardships is at the heart of my motivation to champion and support SIDS at every level. 

SIDS have also been saying enough is enough and are leading the charge to reset our climate finance ambitions. At COP28, Commonwealth SIDS were at the forefront of hard-won progress on loss and damage. 

Samoa, the Commonwealth’s incoming chair-in-office, joined other small islands and vulnerable countries at the 4th International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS4) in Antigua and Barbuda, with leaders calling for “collective quantified finance goals and funding” to help them deal with frequent and intensifying natural disasters

The Commonwealth is working to ensure that SIDS’ voices are heard at the highest level of the international system, while providing practical support in critical areas such as finance and disaster resilience. 

The Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub has unlocked$330 million for our most vulnerable members, with another $500 million worth of project proposals in the pipeline. 

Our national climate finance advisers are working shoulder-to-shoulder with government officials across our member countries. They are not just preparing project proposals but also building the capacity of governments to face the challenges of climate change and development.  

For years, we have seen leaders from these countries take the steps needed to transition toward low-carbon, climate-resilient development. 

But to scale up this action, reliable climate finance is key. The Commonwealth Secretariat will continue to advocate for increased funding for adaptation, mitigation and resilience-building. This is a lifeline for vulnerable countries. 

Our commitment to climate change is not new; it is part of the Commonwealth’s DNA and our history of environmental leadership continues to guide us today. 

Our next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting will take place in Samoa in October this year — the first one to be held in a Pacific Small Island State — with a clear focus on building the resilience which is essential for each of our 56 nations to thrive.

If we are to achieve this, the world must keep its promises. Every commitment to climate action and finance made by world leaders is vital — but every failure to meet those commitments is an insult to the most vulnerable, and every example of inaction is an act of violence against those who need us to succeed, now and for generations to come. 

The call to action on climate finance will continue to resound from Commonwealth SIDS at the UN General Assembly in September to the negotiations at COP29 in Baku in November.  It must be heeded.

Patricia Scotland KC is the secretary general of the Commonwealth.