Hurricane seasons have always been a stark reality of Caribbean life. Many of the natural disasters in the region have made history, personalized by names such as David, Hugo, Felix and Erica. But there is nothing humane about these storms. Nature’s fury is not restrained by considerations for people, property or economic stability. Last week we met Monstrous Matthew, which claimed lives and caused widespread destruction in the region.
As I travel to Washington to meet with finance ministers from across the Commonwealth, the increasing frequency and intensity of these storms is weighing heavily on my mind. Last year I saw first-hand the terrible cost to lives and the devastation to infrastructure that Dominica experienced when Hurricane Erica wiped out 90 per cent of the country’s GDP – equivalent to US$483 million. In minutes the storm demolished decades of progress.
In many cases the blow from climatic events to already fragile Commonwealth economies is more than countries can bear. The sad truth is that these storms are linked to man made climate change, and those suffering most are those who are least responsible for the actions that caused it.
As I coordinated disaster relief for Dominica, where I was born, I saw how challenging it was to get the global spotlight on this tiny country. I saw a leader facing the tough possibility of taking out loans to rebuild infrastructure that he still owes money on.
I also became aware of the additional hurdles for those who want to help. For example, the challenges relatives and friends in the UK faced when they tried to send money to support their loved ones. With big international banks closing accounts in smaller institutions in developing countries, to avoid the risk of breaking strict new anti-money laundering and terrorist financing regulations, these vital remittances are under threat.
It was a sharp awareness of all of these issues that lead me to the decision to make climate change a priority during my term as Secretary-General. Since news of Matthew broke, I have been speaking to Caribbean leaders to reassure them that the Commonwealth is ready and willing to support the regional Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.
But whilst disaster recovery is critical, we also have to get to the root of the climate-related challenges facing countries right across the Commonwealth. This is why these issues are topping the agenda at the finance ministers meeting. But this meeting is not a talk-shop. I am traveling to Washington with solutions.
I will be offering ministers the services of our Climate Finance Access Hub, which opened its doors last month. Working in collaboration with regional organizations such as the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belize, the Pacific Regional Environment Programme in Samoa, Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme and the Indian Ocean Commission in Mauritius, the Hub will offer tailored support so Commonwealth countries can better access the billions pledged for climate action.
Our pioneering countercyclical financial instruments will give countries a payment holiday if they are hit by a natural disaster. This means much needed breathing space in the aftermath of a storm to focus on recovery and to avoid getting into more debt or defaulting on existing debt.
We will also be progressing our Multilateral Debt Swap for Climate Action proposal, which was endorsed by the United Nations Secretary General and is currently being piloted in the Caribbean. This will help small states reduce their public debt in exchange for their commitment to use the repayments to finance local climate change projects.
Our experts have been examining related issues such as de-risking and its impact on remittances. They will discuss a new report focused on solutions with central bank governors.
We believe our support is invaluable, but we cannot do it alone. So we will continue our long history of advocacy for action on climate change. This dates back to the landmark Langkawi Declaration of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 1989. Last year decisions made at CHOGM, on the eve of the COP21 climate change summit, were instrumental in achieving a commitment to a climate change ‘speed limit’ of two degrees and aspirations for 1.5 degrees.
What we need now is for countries’ vulnerability and resilience to climate change to be accounted for in concessional finance arrangements. We believe the best way to do this is a vulnerability index, which considers a number of factors, including countries’ likelihood of being affected by natural disasters.
Currently, international financial institutions use an income-based measure to determine whether a country is given concessional financing. Many Commonwealth small states are currently ineligible for this support, despite their obvious vulnerability to violent storms.
As the Caribbean endures the stress and worry of a hurricane season, we at the Commonwealth will use every opportunity, every platform to galvanize support for our small and vulnerable members.