Climate change: UNFCC report on Indigenous people websiteUnited Nations Cimate Change report - August 2022.

Climate change is the defining issue of our times (though one might not think so to listen to the new British prime minister, Liz Truss, who attacked environmentalists at her party conference). And as another United Nations climate change summit nears, this time Cop27 in Cairo, the thorny question of who pays for the catastrophic damage inflicted by global warming will be front and centre once again.

Thirty years ago the UN held the first of these conferences in Rio de Janeiro, the so-called Earth Summit, to discuss ‘Environment and Development’. It seems almost quaint in our angst-ridden era that the subject of climate change first appears 117 pages into the report (many previous references are about creating ‘a favourable climate for investment’). But the conference did lead to three key UN treaties: the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention to Combat Desertification.

Much of the discussion in Brazil in 1992 was about harnessing science to improve our understanding of the complex processes initiated by ‘greenhouse gases’. Now the science is, for all but a few blinkered deniers, comprehensive and incontrovertible. Progress towards subsequent goals, however, has been patchy. At Cop15, the UN climate summit held in Copenhagen in 2008, wealthy nations promised to provide $100bn a year by 2020 to help developing countries adapt to climate change and develop green technologies.

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Climate refugees

But those commitments had still not been met by last year’s Cop26 in Glasgow. In its report Hollow Commitments, the Danish development charity Care found that most G7 countries had still not made the required commitments on finance, despite the number of climate refugees soaring. In just three Commonwealth countries, climate change and extreme weather displaced 4.4 million people in Bangladesh, 3.9 million in India and more than 800,000 in Pakistan in 2020.

Indigenous peoples may well be the greatest victims of climate change. In Botswana’s Kalahari desert indigenous people must live around government drilled boreholes for water and survive on state support as rising temperatures, dune expansion and higher winds reduce vegetation and erode traditional ways of life.

Coastal erosion

The Pacific island nation of Kiribati was sounding the alarm about the existential threat of climate change as far back as 1999, admitting that the country’s people and government were ‘scared by the potential for the sea level to rise’, while also recognising that there was ‘very little that they can effectively do to prevent global warming or to effectively adapt to the accelerated sea-level rise’. Twenty-two years later a UN Development Programme report on living conditions in Kiribati’s Nonouti island found that locals were struggling with increasing coastal erosion and flooding, rising freshwater salinity and poorer health – with little expectation of help from the outside world.

However, though it is assumed that technology must be the answer to climate change, it is more likely that the world’s estimated 476 million indigenous people – about a third of whom live in Commonwealth nations – are also the answer to climate change. According to a UNFCCC report in August, indigenous peoples safeguard about 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. They have had to adapt to shifting environments for centuries and therefore are models for resilience and adaptation efforts in areas such as food security, conservation and combating desertification. The report cites ‘village common forests’ in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh as an example of how communities can obtain vital resources for local needs while conserving biodiversity.

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Preserving natural resources is one thing but making the leap to green energy and sustainable development is quite another. Even maintaining existing infrastructure in the face of ever more frequent extreme weather events will put a heavy burden on developing countries. In his landmark 2006 climate change review, the economist Nicholas Stern estimated that the costs of extreme weather alone could reach 0.5-1% of world GDP by 2050, and the figure would keep rising as the world warmed. Five years later, a UN university study estimated that African states could expect to pay an extra $183bn maintaining their road network over the next 60 years because of the impact of climate change. The cost of adapting to climate change in developing countries could rise to $280-$500bn a year by 2050, a figure up to five times greater than previous estimates, according to a 2016 UN Environment Programme report.

Who will pay for developing countries to adapt – and compensate for the damage caused by industrialisation – is an issue that the world’s richest nations have ignored for too long. In a sense, it is always the poorest who pay – they will face hunger more often, bear the brunt of extreme weather, be tipped into poverty more easily, and compete ever more ferociously for shrinking natural resources. But western nations, faced by growing numbers of climate refugees at their borders, cannot evade this forever.

Torres Strait Islanders

In September the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that the Australian government had violated the rights of indigenous Torres Strait Islanders by failing to protect them adequately from the impact of climate change. It was the first legal action against a state brought by people living on low-lying islands, Human Rights Watch noted. The UN body heard that changing weather patterns harmed the islanders’ livelihoods, culture and traditional way of life. Severe flooding from tidal surges destroyed graves, while heavy rainfall degraded the land and reduced the amount of food available.

The ‘groundbreaking decision’, HRW said, has opened the way for further lawsuits and compensation claims by other climate-affected communities worldwide. ‘It sends a clear warning to all governments that they need to protect citizens from climate harm, and failure to do so may make them legally liable.’

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.

‘Eye on the Commonwealth’ columns look at current issues facing the Commonwealth

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