A moral challenge
If I could give my discussion a title, I would say that I am going to tell you about the moral challenge which global climate change poses for the powerful.
I assert that there are no actions which small developing island-states can take to reduce emissions to the extent that they can have a measurable impact on the enormity of the global climate change challenge. My view is that the wealthiest, the most populous, and most creative states face a challenge which is not scientific, or diplomatic. The developed world faces a moral challenge, greater than any it has ever faced, including slavery. I further assert that the United States and Europe are failing the challenge.
I think that I can best demonstrate the accuracy of my claim of failing moral rectitude by telling you a little about the history of my country and region and using that lens to view the enormity of the challenge which islands face, and the sustainable development challenge facing modern civilization. I will speak a little about the power relations between large and small states and show how the vital interests of very small states can be ignored, to their peril.
I see the future largely as a struggle over the environmental security of our planet. Furthermore, I see the need for small island-states to align with just states and caring people to fight gigantic material interests that are determined to lead civilization down a self-interested path, which will clearly be destructive. I will, nevertheless, end on an optimistic note, again taught by my own history.
My history revealed
The history of my country, indeed of the entire Caribbean region, was largely determined in places like England and other states of Europe where the centres of power resided. The Caribbean welcomed Christopher Columbus in 1492 as the first European tourist. From that fateful October morning, 510 years ago, a new page in the modern history of the Caribbean and of Europe commenced.
Three hundred years following the initial encounter, a debate took place in England over the moral depravity of slavery in the English-speaking Caribbean and the rest of the New World. Many Europeans, by 1802, questioned themselves about this significant element of the wealth-creating system then in place. Purchasing humans in Africa, forcibly shipping them across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, and compelling those who survived the journey to a life of misery, as a means of creating wealth, smelled unjust.
Ironically, this immoral trade and painful practice was carried on principally to allow Britons and other Europeans to enjoy the sweet taste of sugar.
In 1807, one hundred and ninety-five years ago, Britain banned the slave trade and tried getting the French, the Spanish, the Dutch and the Portuguese to end this trade in human flesh. Despite the agreement reached at the Vienna Conference in 1815, it was by force of arms, and the confiscation of ships and their human cargo, that the trade in human beings was brought to an eventual end.
I tell of my own regions unflattering past as a slave colony because I believe that the great moral question that bedevilled the slave masters of yesteryear holds important lessons for generations of today. Human beings, and not wealth-creation, stand at the centre of civilization. The evils of slavery taught that justice and freedom, morality and ethics, must coexist with the system of wealth-creation, whatever system each succeeding generation may engineer.
Can we save the earth?
Can the human family so organize societys wealth-creating system that we not only spread development equitably, today, but can bequeath to future generations a world that is superior to our own inheritance? Can we enjoy the bounties of the earth today, without imperilling the ability of future generations to enjoy the same, tomorrow?
If you answer yes, then you believe that we can attain sustainable justice together with sustainable development. If you answer no, then you are a pessimist, and you are on the wrong side of history. The human behaviours which lead to global climate change seem innocent. What could be more innocent than cooking your food, taking a shower, making your home warm in winter, taking a train to work, turning on your computer? These are very innocent acts which each of us must daily undertake if we are lucky enough to have a home, to have an income, to have access to the technologies that are creating wealth today. Yet, collectively, they are destroying the planetary systems which support life.
Whether deliberate or accidental, the destruction of the life support systems of our planet poses a great moral question about choice.
Those of us who live on small specks of land, peopled by the descendants of slaves and slave masters, in the Caribbean have not agreed to be sacrificial lambs on the altar of success of industrial civilization. I frequently tell North American audiences that the love which I have for my island-country is not any lesser than the love which they have for their country, just because my country is much smaller. Our love of country is equal.
Just as North Americans would not tolerate, not for an entire generation, any innocent act originating on my small island which jeopardized their security and their tomorrow, so I too am compelled to let them know that we will never cease to use the means available to us to persuade others that we find their innocent actions collectively unacceptable, morally wrong.
We see a lack of moral rectitude by those who are in leadership positions, who know the consequences of their inaction, and yet insist that they will not act. The skies do not belong to the United States, nor to Canada, nor to Australia, nor to Europe. Your religion teaches that The earth is the Lords and the fullness thereof. The skies form a part of the global commons, collectively intended for the use of all living creatures. Yet, by the wealthiest states refusal to seek and to utilize alternative, non-polluting sources of abundant energy, and by the United States deliberate denunciation of the Kyoto Protocol, creation is itself endangered.
The challenge defined
Low-lying islands and coastal communities worldwide may cease to exist as the oceans waters expand upon being warmed. Global temperatures will continue to increase owing to the additional quantities of greenhouse gases and particulate matter indiscriminately dumped into our skies each day.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that islands and coasts could quickly become civilizations victims the dispensable canary in the coal-mine.
The IPCC has also warned that half of the worlds mangroves and wetlands have already been destroyed. Wetlands used to act like shock absorbers, easing the impact on the land whenever storms and other extremes of weather brought the ocean ashore. But they are going, going, gone! Bird and mammal species are disappearing at an estimated 100 to 1,000 times the rate at which extinction naturally occurs.
Caribbean islands are especially plagued by natural disasters, related to weather and climate change, that terrify us. I share our record. Between 1920 and 1940, a 20-year period, the Caribbean experienced 70 storms and hurricanes or an average of 3.5 events per year. Between 1944 and 1980, a 36-year period, the Caribbean experienced 196 storms and hurricanes; so the average climbed to 5.5 events per year. In the decade of the 1990s, the Caribbean has experienced, on average, more than 13 storms and hurricanes each year. In 2000, we experienced 13 named storms and hurricanes, 15 in 2001, and 13 in 2002.
Storms and hurricanes are compounded by droughts and floods, increased ambient temperatures and other extreme weather events, all of which the IPCC warned would occur if civilizations fossil-fuel consumption and disposal habits remained unchanged. They have remained unchanged, even worsened, since 1989 when negotiations began on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Disasters, as you well know, are not confined to our Caribbean. Worldwide, natural disasters in the 1990s caused more than US$600 billion in economic losses. More than five times the amount of losses in the 1970s as in the 1990s. And more than fifteen times the amount of losses in the 1950s as in the 1990s. The 1990s saw 86 great disasters, the 1970s saw 47, and the 1950s saw twenty. Between 1985 and 1999, more than 560,000 people died in natural disasters worldwide, though not all in hydrological events. More than 75 per cent of the deaths occurred in Asia. Only one per cent in North America and one per cent in Europe.
The power relations among states
Can an alliance of small island-states persuade continental states to cease and desist from their waste-disposal methods which imperil our earth? The evidence is clear. Small islands cannot no more than slaves could convince their slave masters of the moral depravity of slavery. Further, the material interests at stake are so large, the opposing parties so well endowed and so well connected, that men hath lost their reason.
The petroleum industry is a US$4 billion a day business. The sale of fossil-fuel products in 2000, as a percentage of all economic activity in that year, surpassed the percentage value of the sale of slaves and slave products as a fractional value of all economic activity in 1800. In 2000, the worlds fossil-fuel-driven economy was at its zenith. In 1800, the worlds slave-driven economy was also at its zenith.
The evident moral wrong of slavery is difficult to deny, then and now. Yet, it took treaty-making, war among and within states, revolution and civil strife, and violence to end the slave trade and slavery. Those in favour of continuing the trade and the practice back then were very wealthy and very powerful. Yet, they lost.
Still, contrast those facts with todays challenge. In 2002, there is no perceived moral wrong in burning fossil fuels. Climate change has not produced a Wilberforce. In 2002, the owners of the petroleum industry are even wealthier, more powerful, more well-connected than the slave masters of yesteryear. But, like all injustice, this too shall pass. Today, a few important world leaders are engaged in denial, and the led are largely unaware, or are persuaded to engage also in denial. Denial makes the task of changing the technological course of energy production more daunting, but I know that it is nevertheless doable.
Faith in the future
Yes, great changes can and will take place. We have faith that many well-informed and good people in developed countries will succeed in persuading their leaders, their legislators, their elected parliamentarians, their populations to compel a change in the behaviour of the powerful, and to commence the earnest search for new technologies. Small island-states are marginal in the technological process, but we are bent on using our superior moral platform, handed to us by our history, to move the peoples of Europe into action.
The objective which we seek is not achievable by abandonment of responsibility to market forces. There is a compelling need in the United States for the American Government to do what it did when the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik. The United States made a decision to land a man on the moon. In a few short years, they did it. Having lived in the United States for a considerable fraction of my adult life, I have come to the conclusion that when a known challenge confronts the American people, they give their leadership all the support necessary to overcome it. Thirst for environmental justice must be cast in moral terms, and it will speedily succeed. It must be seen as good versus evil.
Europeans, and especially the British, also must vow to land their man on the moon, to create within a short time the technologies required to lessen dependence on fossil fuels, to increase reliance on non-polluting sources of energy. There is an urgency to act.
Let me close by reminding you that this earth and our sun are 3,500,000,000 years old and that the sun is at its half-life. I remind you that humans have been on this planet for merely one million of those 3,500 million years. Human civilization, on the other hand is only 10,000 years old thanks to the recent beneficent climate which evolved after so many billions of years. I remind you that many of our inventions have come about within the century just past. In 1902, there was no electricity, as we know it. In 1902, there was no automobile, no airplane, no radio, no television, no telephone. There was no computer in 1902, no internet and no palm pilots.
For 100 years, the developed countries have seemingly been conducting a dangerous experiment. What will happen to our planet, industrial civilization seemed to ask, if we pollute the skies with carbon and dust particles that had been sequestered in the earths bowels for millions of years? The answer is now clear. The time has now come to change course, to put civilization on another trajectory. Given the long future which the earth has yet ahead of it, increased reliance by a larger human population upon a finite and diminishing resource, like oil, betrays a lack of logic. On the other hand, infinite ingenuity exists and humans can devise the necessary technologies to bend the future to our dictates.
I believe that civil society institutions like the Royal Institute of International Affairs and multilateral institutions like the United Nations can stimulate the effort to bring about technological advancement in our lifetime sufficient to rescue the planet from the dangers of climate change. The people of Antigua and Barbuda and the forty-one other island-states that make up the Alliance of Small Island States are counting on you.
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