Interview with John Ashton, UK Special Representative for Climate Change

By Alexander Britell

“It was the voice of the Caribbean that changed the world at Durban,” says John Ashton, the UK Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change. The Caribbean, perhaps more than any region in the world, faces an existential threat from global climate change. It is that threat which has spurred the region to band together and provide a voice to larger countries, urging them to confront the realities of what is a clear and present danger. Accordingly, climate change was a major subject of discussion at the recent UK-Caribbean Forum in Grenada, a country that has been putting climate issues at the forefront. To learn more, Caribbean Journal talked to Ashton about Caribbean-UK climate talks, regional integration and what Caribbean intervention meant at Durban.

What were the major points of discussion on climate at the forum?

Well I came here in this visit sort of on the back of my experiences in Durban at the end of last year. And I think there’s a very important experience from Durban that deserves to be much better understood around the world. In the last night, the final few hours of Durban, this whole 20 years of global climate diplomacy was on knife-edge – if it had gone the other way, we would not able to pick up the pieces. You can have a Copenhagen experience but you can’t have it twice – it would have turned into a zombie process. What was it that made the critical difference? It was the voice of the Caribbean, and particularly [Grenadian Foreign Minister] Karl Hood’s intervention. But Karl Hood’s intervention was kind of on the shoulders of a really sustained effort on the part of some Caribbean leaders, like former President Jagdeo of Guyana, of people and institutions like the Climate Change Coordinating Centre in Belize – for example, and all of that effort came to a kind of crescendo that night. Because what needed to happen that night was for there to be an overwhelming emotional momentum in favour of a high-ambition outcome. And in the end, in that kind of circumstance, it was only the voices of the vulnerable countries – the people who were going to be existentially damaged by climate change soon – we’re all going to be existentially damaged by climate change if we don’t get a grip on it – but it will happen in a sequence. And you needed to hear from those countries that really are on the front line of it, and the Caribbean participants, and particularly Grenada, in their capacity as chairman of AOSIS, were right at the front of that. And just remembering back, it was this intervention that then triggered a number of others interventions that created that overwhelming momentum in the room.

 

In the last night, the final few hours of Durban, this whole 20 years of global climate diplomacy was on knife edge – if it had gone the other way, we would not able to pick up the pieces. You can have a Copenhagen experience but you can’t have it twice – it would have turned into a zombie process.”

 

What was the impact of that intervention, and how did that affect your discussions at the forum?

I came here with that experience still very fresh in my mind. It seems to me that what we need to do is build on that momentum — Durban saw the emergence of a kind of group of aligned countries and regions behind the idea that we need a high-ambition [plan]. We’re not doing this at the moment. We’re on track for catastrophic climate change. We need to close the ambition gap. We need to lock it all into a legally binding framework. That coalition started to take shape at Durban, and the Caribbean countries were a very important part of that coalition. So I wanted to explore with people here how we could take that to the next level. I think I’ve been very intrigued. There’s clearly a debate going on in the Caribbean about integration – to what extent is this just a group of disparate economies and to what extent is it a nascent regional integration entity of some kind, where they can secure their interests and more effectively and quickly and at a lower cost by doing it in an integrated way?

 

The structural pressures that gave us oil at $147 a barrel back in 2008 have not gone away, and the more we get global recovery, the more upward pressure there will be on oil prices. That’s going to be an enormous fiscal challenge to heavily invested economies in this region.”

 

I think their interest in relation to climate change is identical – there’s not one of them that doesn’t have an interest in it. So that creates a dynamic which could be good for integrated approaches, and also there are some very concrete reasons – you have a lot of economies in the region that get their electricity from burning imported diesel fuel in generators, which is a very expensive way to get your electricity. The structural pressures that gave us oil at $147 a barrel back in 2008 have not gone away, and the more we get global recovery, the more upward pressure there will be on oil prices. That’s going to be an enormous fiscal challenge to heavily invested economies in this region. So for that idea of trying to leverage investment into alternatives to that, including renewable alternatives, you need an integrate approach. You need to do the financing, and then integrate. You need the technology integrated; you need an overall approach to it. So that’s just one of he examples where an integrated approach would be better.

What are some of the other issues for the region in this regard?

Another one is the whole question of climate finance. You’re going to build a major new shaping force in the public sector financial architecture. Arguably, this is something which we haven’t tried to do since Bretton Woods on this scale – a hundred billion dollars a year of additional capital flows to drive climate finance – some of it private, some of it public, but articulated together in a very complex way. And Caribbean countries ought to be fairly sort of near the front of the queue, to be places where that money goes to invest in greater resilience, and in shifting to low-carbon, resource-efficient development. But on the other hand, you can’t expect individual islands with a population of tens or hundreds of thousands to do that separately. You’ve got to navigate a very complex international architecture to do that, so, again, they’re going to get more value if they’re organized as a region to do that – if they create a regional capacity to do that. I think we, the UK, as one of the voices on the donor side of the climate finance debate, but with strong links to the region, we have an interest in working as closely as we can with partners in the Caribbean to try and create that mechanism.

 

I think we, the UK, as one of the voices on the donor side of the climate finance debate, but with strong links to the region, we have an interest in working as closely as we can with partners in the Caribbean to try and create that mechanism.”

 

So to sum all of that up, climate change is a unique issue, because it touches literally everyone, and there is no country, and no individual in the world whose life is not going to be touched quite dramatically by climate change. But within that, this region is really important, disproportionately important in relation to the number of people who live here and the size of the regional economy. So I think that is why it’s emerging naturally from this meeting that climate change is going to be one of the two or three key areas as we try and build the UK’s relationship over the next few years with the region.

There still seems to be this problem of popular awareness of climate change – how can the Caribbean play a role in improving it?

I think the first thing is, no great transformational project has ever been achieved on the basis of people asking other people to do something they’re not doing. It’s sort of like the Kennedy questions – ask not what America can do for you, ask what you can do for America. What’s happened that’s very interesting in the last few years is, you’ve got some of the most vulnerable and poorest economies actually saying, “well, we’re not going to wait for this money to start flowing on the scale that’s promised. It’s going to take time, and we’re going to grow now, in our societies, an integrated approach to development which is going to be a low-carbon, resource-efficient, climate-resilient development.” You’re seeing that in some African countries, in Ethiopia, in Rwanda, and so on. And you’re seeing it in this region. The Dominican Republic has recently enacted a development strategy which actually includes legally binding emissions limits, which is quite interesting – that a country with their economic circumstances should be willing to take on a domestically legally binding emissions cuts. That should be fairly widely known internationally that they’re doing that. But I think, as you do that, you internalize this issue much more powerfully in the kind of mainstream discourse and politics of a country. And that, in turn, gives you much more authority in the international conversation. And it actually puts you in a much stronger position to influence the choices that others are making, but you’re doing it from a position of authority, because you’ve internalized it and reflected it in your own choices. It’s all about walking the walk. We can’t do this on the basis of talk alone – it’s got to be about the talk.

How is that playing out now in the Caribbean?

You’re seeing a growing awareness that this isn’t a possible threat to security and prosperity in the future – it’s a clear and present danger, and it’s damaging livelihoods now. The effect of climate change on coral is going to be seriously bad for tourism in this region, and tourism is a seriously important part of the regional economy. I’m a scientist by training, and I’ve tried to follow it a bit, and there are still a lot of question marks, but it seems to be an emerging conclusion that whatever happens to the frequency of hurricanes as a whole, you’re going to get more of the most destructive hurricanes. So that is penetrating public understanding a bit more, and is being validated by experience.

 

The effect of climate change on coral is going to be seriously bad for tourism in this region, and tourism is a seriously important part of the regional economy.”

 

You just have to mention Hurricane Ivan [in Grenada] and people know what you mean on an existential threat. And they’re harnessing that politically. And again, I don’t think you can do that as a sort of isolated thing among a large number of countries – it has to be a shared conversation. I don’t know this region well – I’m ashamed to say, particularly because one of my driving passions in life is the sport of cricket, so there’s always the religious quality for someone like me coming to the English-speaking Caribbean for the first time. But there’s also a very strong incentive for me to work closely and with Caribbean countries in all of this.

Can you talk more about the role of Grenada at Durban?

The voice of the Caribbean, and the voice of Grenada, and the voice of Minister Hood in particular were decisive at Durban. And it was what Karl Hood said at the critical moments, as we were approaching the climax in Durban, in those tense hours before dawn in the final sessions, that triggered a wave of similar interventions from others who, like Grenada and the Caribbean islands, felt themselves to be on the front line of the stress of climate change, pressing for a high-ambition outcome. In the end, that wave became irresistible – but it might well not have happened had it not been for Grenada’s initiating it. It was the voice of the Caribbean that changed the world in Durban. And that’s something that is worth reflecting on, because it shows that the smallest of nations can have the biggest of impacts.

 

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