Q&A: On the Frontline, Islands Aim to Seize Climate Initiatives

Extreme weather associated to climate change has resulted in million of dollars in loss and damage in St. Vincent and the Grenadines over the past few years. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS
  • by SWAN (kingston / paris)
  • Inter Press Service

When that conference takes place, island states will no doubt be among the most vocal in calling for urgent climate action, again - just as they did at COP 21, joining the “1.5-to-stay-alive” stance in the runup to the Paris Agreement. Yet, island governments and their supporters aren’t just waiting around for the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases to listen to them (or to commit fully to limiting the rise in global warming to 1.5C). Instead, many are banding together to exchange ideas and to come up with sustainable measures, confronted by ever-present disaster.

Besides LACCW, initiatives that have been bringing islands together include Island Innovation, a group founded and directed by James Ellsmore, who organized a high-level “Island Finance Forum” in April. This four-day virtual event featured a line-up of entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations, academics and other experts.

Also participating were officials like Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda (which suffered a devastating hurricane in 2017), and Pearnel Charles Jr., a senator and government minister in Jamaica - which has warned about the severe economic problems linked to climate change.

Ellsmore told IPS that Island Innovation began with a newsletter and a series of virtual events, and has evolved into a community of more than 100,000 members. In addition, Ellsmore is the co-founder of the NGO Solar Head of State (SHOS), which “works with governments to push action on renewable energy”.

The NGO has focused on small island developing states, with solar installations on the Office of the Prime Minister of Jamaica, Government House in Saint Lucia and the Presidential Palace of the Maldives. Ellsmore said that SHOS is now working with the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States and the Pacific Island Development Forum to install solar on the official residences “across these organizations’ combined 24 member states”.

Besides working in the Caribbean, Ellsmore (who grew up on a farm in Shropshire, England) has worked in the United States and Colombia and is now based in Lisbon, Portugal.

The next global event that he and Island Innovation are organizing will be the Virtual Island Summit, Sept. 6 - 12. He spoke with IPS reporter A.D. McKenzie via email about these and other ventures. An edited version of the interview follows.

IPS: Islands are on the frontline of the battle against climate change. Over the past years, you have been highlighting this through a series of initiatives and conferences. Can you tell us how this work began?

JAMES ELLSMORE: Island Innovation initially started as a network, sharing sustainable development stories from rural, remote and island communities across the globe. I saw that these island communities were facing many similar issues, and there was an opportunity for them to connect on a bigger scale and collaborate. Islands as different as Greenland, Barbados, Okinawa and Saint Helena share certain commonalities and we created opportunities to build “digital bridges” to connect them. The community now include over 100,000 participants from across the globe.

Although islands are so diverse, they share many common issues, of course the effects of climate change being among the most pressing. By creating this virtual space, remote islands from opposite corners of the globe can come together to highlight challenges they face, share solutions and promote solutions for sustainable development.

IPS: At the recent Leaders Summit on Climate, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “Mother Nature is not waiting. The past decade was the hottest on record. Dangerous greenhouse gases are at levels not seen in 3 million years. Global temperature has already risen 1.2 degrees Celsius – racing toward the threshold of catastrophe. Meanwhile, we see ever rising sea-levels, scorching temperatures, devastating tropical cyclones and epic wildfires.” What can islands do amidst this crisis?

J.E.: I think it’s important to note that although islands, and particularly Small Island Developing States (SIDS), are very much on at the frontline of climate change, they have been a clear voice in pushing climate change to the forefront of the agenda, as well as proving their resilience. Promotion of innovative finance models and economic diversification is key to support island communities and SIDS, and this was one of the main focal points in our recent Island Finance Forum. At the United Nations, the leaders calling for climate action are often from islands, but these efforts to call for change affect everyone.

IPS: Your most recent conference, organized by your group Island Innovation and held virtually, focused on finance. It attracted some 6,000 registrants, with 70 speakers that included prime ministers, climate finance experts, activists and others. What was the motivation for organizing this conference?

J.E.: Our annual event, the Virtual Island Summit covers a wide range of topics. Listening to attendee feedback is important to me and I found that a common question that came out of the Virtual Island Summit was how island communities can get access to the sustainable finance solutions and projects on offer. We launched the Island Finance Forum as a way to connect our island stakeholders with the financial experts, with a focus on sustainable and inclusive finance structures for island communities. So often there is enthusiasm for change but there need to be channels for financing action.

IPS: What did you look for in the potential speakers?

J.E.: The Island Finance Forum was a high-level event and we wanted to have the senior financiers and experts who are responsible for projects that are making sustainable and economic changes in island communities. It’s also very important for us to have island speakers at our events who can give that first-hand insight and experience. We included high-level island politicians such as the Prime Ministers of Fiji, Vanuatu and Antigua & Barbuda. Speakers also hailed from multinational finance institutions such as BNP Paribas and local island banks such as NCB Capital Markets in the Caribbean.

IPS: What do you think participants gained from the information provided and the discussions that took place?

J.E.: I believe we achieved what we had set out to do, which is connect island stakeholders with “decision-makers” and financial experts. As with all our events, we created a space to share and exchange knowledge and I hope that our stakeholders can take away these updates on successful and sustainable projects that can be implemented on their own islands. Our events include hundreds of islands and this diversity of participation is really exciting.

IPS: Your next conference will be the Virtual Island Summit, Sept. 6 - 12. What will be the major themes of this gathering?

J.E.: The Virtual Island Summit is much broader in scope and will cover all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. There will of course be a strong focus on solutions to mitigating climate change, as well as discussion on the blue economy, agriculture, tourism and post-Covid recovery. The Virtual Island Summit will also feed into our involvement at the COP26, where we are planning to create an “Island Space” to share insights into island communities. A big part of this work is breaking down silos and we always ensure we include representatives from government, NGOs, academia and the private sector.

IPS: How do you expect this conference to help islands in their fight against climate change and in addressing other issues that affect them, including the Covid-19 pandemic?

J.E.: Through facilitating these important global conversations and collaborations. Not just during the week of the event but beyond, through our online community where conversations flourish, and we continue to learn from each other. Our events highlight that island communities experience similar problems, but if we can continue to make connections between them to exchange knowledge on how to respond and act on issues, this can only be a good thing.

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