Q&A: Commonwealth secretary-general talks Ocean Conference takeaways

Patricia Scotland, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations. Photo by: The Commonwealth / CC BY-NC

Dealing with the impact of climate change has long been a reality for many of the Commonwealth’s 52 countries — it represents more than 20 small island developing states, including its smallest member, Nauru, with a population of just under 10,000 people. Its largest member, India, with an estimated more than 1.3 billion inhabitants, is similarly considered extremely vulnerable to various impacts of climate change, from sea level rise to drought.  

The ongoing United Nations Ocean Conference, then, has some personal meaning for Patricia Scotland, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations, and a native of Dominica. Fiji, a Commonwealth member state, is a co-chair of the ongoing meetings, during which Scotland has outlined the development of a “Blue Charter:” A set of guiding principles for sustainable, ocean economic development based on the Commonwealth’s charter.

The conference will wrap Friday, with a U.N. “call to action” stressing continued implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 and the conservation of oceans, “recognizing the adverse impact of climate change.” The document is not binding, but the conference will still stand as the first time the U.N. has placed oceans and marine conservation in the spotlight.

Devex caught up with Scotland on the sidelines of the conference Wednesday to talk about why this matters, and the next steps the Commonwealth will take to implement the “call to action” across its countries. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Looking at a map of the Commonwealth, it’s clear that a large number of your countries have already been impacted by climate change and sea level rise. What are you hoping will come out of the Ocean Conference as it pertains to the countries you are representing?

For the small island states, climate change really represents an existential threat. If you look at Tuvalu, Kiribati, Nauru, etc., they are very close to the water line. Many of our states are contemplating on a day-by-day basis the possibility of extinction as a result of rising sea levels. So, this whole issue of climate change is something the Commonwealth has been arguing for and committed to since the 1970s. In fact, the real debate started in the Caribbean and the Pacific because these are the small islands that were first affected.

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The small states have been able to raise this issue to the attention of the large states for a very long time. The [Commonwealth] heads of government meeting back in 1989 was the first time globally that a group of countries was saying, ‘We really have to address climate change.’ And climate change, since 1989, has been very much on the Commonwealth agenda. In Malta in November 2015, the Commonwealth came together to make a statement on their position on climate change reversal and how they were going to put forward a joint position to go to Paris at the U.N. meeting. They decided it would go for enforceability, 2 degrees Celsius and with a 1.5 degree aspirational target. And as you know the global community agreed in Paris on 2 degrees, 1.5 degrees enforceability. We have big, medium and small [countries] within our family. So when that group comes together, lots of the arguments that will be talked about globally end up being argued out around that family table — if we are able to come to an agreed position, then we have a good platform.

What did you want to see in the call to action and what is not represented as strongly as you think should be?

The call to action, I think, is a good high-level statement for people to commit to, particularly because we know that not all of our countries in the world are in the same position. The reason why the Commonwealth “blue charter” is so important is that it will enable one-third of the world to articulate more clearly what an action plan would look like, in order to implement the call to action.

And that’s not there yet?

That’s not there yet, but it is in part. What we are looking to do is to take the blue elements out of our Commonwealth charter, which was signed into being in 2013, to which all the Commonwealth countries commit to, and consolidate and highlight those blue elements in our charter in one place.

So, the blue charter will be the embodiment of all the things we have already committed to doing, but then we will aspire to set out a road map for how we could best implement them. We now have the Commonwealth Secretariat offering to undertake a needs-based assessment for each of our member states, then do an audit of what we are already doing. A number of our states have found the solutions for some of our problems, but we have not necessarily shared the solutions. So, if we can brigade what we need and what we have, we can produce an accurate, clear gap analysis. There is a real opportunity for us in the Commonwealth. We have to look at employment and employability and we have to look at the empowerment of women and girls to make sure we maintain the wealth. But also want to put the common back into the wealth.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.