The Commonwealth, Climate Change, and a Tsar-Sultan standoff in the Middle East


by Rajan Philips

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta this weekend is being seen as a rehearsal for the Climate Change conference starting tomorrow in Paris. And Paris will be hosting the Climate Change conference just two weeks after the deadly ISIS attacks. France is still under Emergency rule, and the City chock-a-block with security details to protect nearly 150 Heads of State/Government and 5,000 delegates who will be attending the conference spread over two weeks. The Paris conference is also set to stage a potential sideshow face off between Turkish President Reep Tayip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who have been verbally sniping at each other from a distance after the Turkish military shot down a Russian fighter jet for allegedly violating its air space while bombing targets in Syria. Turkey is a NATO country and other western NATO members have not criticized Turkey, while officially standing by their ally. But no one is ready to go to war over this except perhaps Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin. President Obama has called for cooler heads while others in NATO have more than raised eyebrows that someone could shoot down an aircraft for an alleged aerial violation that apparently lasted 17 seconds.

In the midst of this international kerfuffle, Sri Lanka quietly passed the Commonwealth baton to Malta, thereby ending Sri Lanka’s two-year chairmanship of the institution. The meeting in Colombo years was part ‘showgm’ of the Rajapaksa government, as the wags in Colombo appropriately abbreviated, and was part a fractious affair between President Rajapaksa and British Prime Minister David Cameron. The Queen was in Malta to open the conference but sent Prince Charles to do the honours in Colombo. India’s Manmohan Singh and Canada’s Stephen Harper both boycotted Colombo, and both are gone now from office. And so has President Rajapaksa. He lost two elections after hosting the 2013 CHOGM, and it fell to the man who defeated him, President Sirisena, to hand over the baton in Malta. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be setting a new Indian pattern by staying away from Malta and sending his Foreign Minister instead. Perhaps, Mr. Modi needs more time at home to lick his wounds after the mauling he and his ruling party received in the Bihar state election. But sensitive old Indians, who would remember Jawaharlal Nehru’s towering presence in the Commonwealth, may not be amused seeing their diminutive Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, being relegated to the last row for the official group photograph.

In fairness to the Rajapaksas, they did put up a good show for the Commonwealth and the country when Sri Lanka hosted the 2013 CHOGM. But the show was not good enough to carry them through the presidential election that Mahinda Rajapaksa prematurely called a year later. The proceedings went well with the added drama of Prime Minister Cameron’s historic - depending on the viewer’s eye - visit to Jaffna. Jaffna has been receiving more than its quota of foreign visitors after becoming war-ravaged. Last week, it was the turn of Samantha Power, well-known author, human-rights intellectual and US Ambassador to the United Nations. It would have been a routine visit but for our Foreign Minister’s over enthusiasm in welcoming American officials, and the hyper-criticisms of his detractors who sometimes get their protocol knickers twisted a bit too much. On the other hand, for the school girls in Jaffna who thoroughly enjoyed themselves playing ‘round-race (elle)’ with Dr. Power, they have pictures to cherish and to inspire them to do well as students.

Climate Change and Security

Unlike in 2013, the British Prime Minister appears to be in charge of the Malta agenda, with its twin themes of climate change and international security. For the first time a French President has been invited to address a Commonwealth summit. The idea was to give French President Francois Hollande the podium for a prep-talk on climate change as segue to the Paris conference. Malta was also been planned as a useful occasion for backroom discussions and reaching consensus on climate change targets among the 53 Commonwealth leaders ahead of the Paris conference involving three times as many leaders. The ISIS attack in Paris has placed an additional and admittedly more urgent burden on President Hollande to discuss security everywhere he goes and mobilize support from whichever quarter he can. And Prime Minister Cameron seems more than ready to join any attacking bandwagon in the Middle East. Between them and other Western leaders, they will also face the difficult task of mediating between Putin and Erdogan and lowering the heat of power politics in the Middle East, even as they try to reach some consensus on reducing global warming.

In more sense than one, Putin and Erdogan are behaving like aberrational reincarnations of the old Tsar and the Ottoman Emperor spoiling for a fight abroad to please their subjects at home. Putin dreams of a Russia precedent to the Bolsheviks and Erdogan longs for a Turkey that was there before Kemal Ataturk modernized and secularized it. Ironically, it is Lenin’s insightful theory of ‘unevenness’ in socio-economic development that seems writ large over every human action and reaction in politics. Even as world leaders are being challenged to come to grips with the planetary consequences of global warming in the post-industrial age of human habitation, many of them are still driven by the more primitive urges to go to war. The end of the Cold War and the absence of two countervailing superpowers has given the long leash to the more local dogs of war. Humankind might be relatively safe from the risk of a nuclear war, but hapless people are being caught in the crossfires, killed and displaced in their thousands day in and day out.

"The caprice of nature conspired with the hate of man", wrote Frank Moraes of the old Times of Ceylon fame, to describe the cumulative catastrophe of the floods in Punjab and the partition of India. After nearly seventy years of decolonisation, there is still no adequate antidote to the hate of man (except promoting more progressive women in politics), but we seem to be getting a better understanding of the caprice of nature, at least scientifically speaking. It is now generally accepted that the current phase of climate change – manifested by significant atmospheric warming, is mostly attributable to physical and social changes brought about by modern industrialization. Rising atmospheric temperatures and the recurring incidents of extreme weather changes are both the results of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. The Climate Change Conferences that began in Barbados, in 1994, are an attempt to reach global consensus in regard to targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

The warning from science is that these reduction targets, even if agreed upon and achieved, will only slow down the rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHG) and the extent of global warming, but will not prevent them. Even a ‘heroic’ 20% reduction of GHG emission over 50 years will only delay the doubling of the GHG concentration by 10 years – 2075 instead 2065. The global target after Paris, if successful, is to be an ‘unheroic’ 3% reduction in GHG emissions (or limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius) below the 8% rise that would happen under a business-as-usual scenario. The heroic reduction is virtually impossible, for a 20% reduction would mean US, Europe and China, now respectively emitting 17, 7 and 6 tons of GHG annually, will have to reduce their emissions to the current levels of countries like Haiti, Yemen and Malawi! At the same time new GHG additions will be coming from economically advancing developing countries and the rise in global population from 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion by 2150.

The consequences of global warming are already being experienced. Extreme weather changes over the last two decades have caused 600,000 deaths, 4.1 billion injured and/or displaced, and an economic toll of $1.9 trillion dollars. Continentally, floods have the scourge of Asia, droughts in Africa, heatwaves in Europe, wildfires in the US, and storms everywhere. Continued global warming, melting glaciers and rising sea levels will swallow more than half a dozen small islands and damage the coastal and inland areas primarily in the Americas, China, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Scientists are advocating adaptation as well as significant reductions, and the Paris conference is billed to address both. Adaptations, such as sea-walls and drought-resistant crops might be politically more sellable than reaching consensus on reductions. Adaptations will invariably become another example of ‘unevenness’, with the rich countries and the rich in poor countries adapting better to climate change than the poor everywhere. But under no circumstance will there be a justification for business-as-usual to continue. The irony is also that the Paris conference is coming on the heels of the biggest consumption weekend in the US, following the American Thanksgiving holiday and now globalized through online discount prices.


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