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POLITICS: Climate Change High on Commonwealth Agenda

Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Nov 23 2009 (IPS) - It is normally a conference bringing together leaders from Britain and its former colonies.

But the Nov. 27-29 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has already attracted French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and there is media speculation that U.S. President Barack Obama as well as his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao may also make the trip.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapetero of Spain are also reportedly coming to Port of Spain for meetings with the leaders of the 53 countries of the Commonwealth.

The attraction for these leaders is the undoubtedly the efforts worldwide to deal with the impact of climate change. According to the host, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning, who has confirmed the participation of Sarkozy, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Lars Lokke Rasmussen, prime minister of Denmark, the Caribbean has an opportunity to shape a new deal ahead of the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen next month.

Manning noted that the Commonwealth gathering “is the last international summit meeting before that critical meeting [in Denmark] and has become most important to the process”.

“Our country has been at the centre of almost frenzied activity among leading nations from both the developed and developing world as we seek to ensure that we take the strongest possible position in preparation for the Copenhagen meeting,” Manning said in a radio and television broadcast last week.

The 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom) grouping has launched a public campaign designed to promote the region’s unified position on climate change ahead of the Dec. 7-18 meeting in Copenhagen.

The campaign, under the theme “1.5 °C to Stay Alive”, is intended to support and “dramatise a common regional approach for mitigating the effects of climate change on the region”, which will be articulated at Copenhagen as well as at the Commonwealth meeting, said Caricom Secretary General Edwin Carrington.

He said that the plan includes a digital display on the harmful effects of rising greenhouse gases on small island states (SIDS) and several video presentations on how climate change is affecting human, animal and plant life in the Caribbean.

“It will erode much of the foundation of our tourism, our agriculture and our fisheries industry; it will wreak havoc on our plant life, our forests and most of all dislocate our people. Immediate corrective action must therefore be taken if we are to avoid this widespread destruction” Carrington said.

He noted that the recent agreement between Guyana and Norway on a low carbon development programme, which provided incentives to Guyana for the preservation of its forest, is a “significant signal to the rest of the world”.

“The future generation deserves no less; to delay is to gamble with the very future of mankind,” he said, adding that the region would seek to consolidate its position within the Alliance of Small Island Developing States (AOSIS), the Group of 77 and China, as well as with the Developed or Annex 1 Countries.

The AOSIS has rejected calls by some world leaders to stall a legally binding outcome at next month’s Copenhagen meeting, insisting there is need to protect the “most vulnerable, not the most powerful”.

“AOSIS still insist and maintain that there are all the ingredients for us to arrive at an international legally binding outcome in Copenhagen in December and that continues to be our position,” said Grenada’s Environment Minister Michael Church at the end of a two-day PRE-COP Consultation in the Danish capital on Tuesday.

“We must come out of Copenhagen with confidence that we [ministers] have been able to bring the concerns of our people unto the platform of COP 15, to be integrated into the main agreement,” said Sherry Ayittey, Ghana’s Minister for Environment, Science and Technology.

Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma said he expects more a lot more than talk to come out of this weekend’s meeting, indicating that he was aware of the importance of climate change to the Caribbean.

He has brushed aside suggestions that the grouping of former British colonies was losing its relevance. “[The] Commonwealth is increasing in relevance rather than decreasing,” he said.

Agence France Presse (AFP) reported last weekend that Sarkozy’s interest in coming to Trinidad stemmed from a climate change policy his country has adopted with Brazil ahead of the Copenhagen gathering.

Sarkozy is expected to use the visit to Trinidad to push the final objective of a global reduction of at least 50 percent by 2050 of damaging greenhouse gases. Both Sarkozy and Da Silva have said they would launch an international drive to get other countries to back the text of their accord.

“Now with President Lula, we are going to do everything to gather the biggest number of backers for the text,” Sarkozy told AFP.

Chen Yang, political affairs attache at the Chinese Embassy in Port of Spain, said last week that they were “still awaiting a response” from China while the U.S. Embassy public affairs officer, Matthew V Cassetta, said he had received no official communication that either Obama or U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be here.

“At this point in time we have no indication that either of them has expressed an interest or plan to attend,” he said.

However, there are fears in Washington that the United States may not sign on to new international agreements on climate change because of domestic politics. Officials fear that such a delay could derail the securing of a tough global agreement in time for countries and markets to adopt it before the Kyoto treaty runs out in 2012.

Climate change apart, the Commonwealth leaders will also be discussing the impact of the ongoing global economic and financial crisis on their countries.

“It is only concerted action by all that can restore the world economy to satisfactory levels of growth, and generate the wealth and employment we all need.,” said Manning, noting “our theme of partnering for a more equitable and sustainable future development is most relevant, not only regarding Commonwealth cooperation, but also as an indispensable basis for global action in the interest of all nations.”

Human rights issues will also be on the table.

The Trinidad-based Caribbean Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) as well as the India-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) have called for the withdrawal of the invitation to Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, particularly over statements he made in September on Gambian television in which Jemmeh threatened to “kill anyone who tries to destabilise my country”.

In a brief statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Gambia’s delegation would be led by the minister of foreign affairs, giving no reason for the president’s absence.

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