In the latter part of this year, government leaders from around the world will meet for what the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has described as an “unprecedented” global summit.

Thereafter, a sequence of meetings will try to achieve an international consensus on the future level of global carbon emissions and pave the way for a new carbon trading mechanism; decisions that could ensure that future generations are not plunged into a world conflict over diminishing land and resources.

The objective is to achieve a new climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol which ends in 2012.

Achieving agreement will be far from easy. Determining how to address these issues in a global context has precisely the same fault lines that have held back progress in the Doha Round at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Although the science of global warming is clear – there is still some disagreement over the extent to which human activity is to blame – there is as yet no resolution on how a balance is to be struck between the developed nations (among the biggest polluters); the emerging, industrializing and newer greenhouse gas emitting economies of nations like Brazil, China and India; and nations such as those in the Caribbean that are likely to suffer the most from global warming, but are among the lowest carbon emitters in the world.

At issue is resolving the conundrum of development. That is to say, trying to address  a number of almost impossible questions: whether there are limits to growth; whether it is possible by agreement to re-balance relationships through a mechanism that trades the right to economic development; and, in the absence of a single philosophy of economic development, whether the market can create global equilibrium in carbon emissions.

Put more simply, the debate is about how much power the developed world is prepared to cede to the developing world through a mechanism that seeks indirectly to control the level and pace of economic development.
Unusually, the UN is hoping that all world leaders will attend the preparatory conference which takes place in September in New York, not least because there is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that there is little more than a decade to halt the rise in carbon emissions and thus curtail the process of global warming.

If agreement is to be reached – and it is far from certain that it can – it requires all governments to have a clear commitment to addressing climate change by the time the UN Climate Change Conference takes place in Copenhagen in December. Unfortunately, as the UN Secretary General suggests, the response has been “less than sufficient,” with nations such as the US, China, India and others still struggling to relate domestic requirements for growth with the need to achieve a global consensus.

The issue is challenging. It requires the three parties – developed, emerging, and less and least developed nations – to establish a new form of balance in which the developed nations accept the need to provide financial and technical support to help vulnerable countries, and for the latter to use the support wisely. In the words of the British Prime Minister this will require “different countries to assess not only their own distinctive goals but the needs and purposes of others.”

Climate change directly threatens every Caribbean nation. It is, as the Secretary-General of Caricom, Edwin Carrington, suggests, an issue of critical significance to the region.
As is now well known, most economic activity in the Caribbean takes place within five kilometres of the sea, and much of the region’s coastal belt is low lying and in some cases below sea level. Moreover, much of the Caribbean’s essential economic infrastructure from tourism plant to capital cities, airports and road networks are adjacent to the ocean. A one metre or more rise in sea level as a result of global warming would threaten the survival of the region and its fragile social and economic infrastructure. It would also pose much bigger questions about what would happen if an inundation should occur.

Although the region is experienced in dealing with the effects of exceptional climatic conditions in the form of hurricanes and tropical storms, it has virtually no experience of uncontrollable migration, a failure in the food supply through the loss of agriculture or ports, or a long-term collapse in basic infrastructure.

As this is being written, Caricom heads of government are discussing a regional draft strategy on climate change. This looks at scenarios for both mitigation and adaptation and the ways in which the region can in a sustainable manner try to address the complex and costly responses required.

A significant part of the document addresses how the region should prepare for both the New York and Copenhagen conferences. It also looks at a range of specific issues including the sustainable preservation of standing forests, an approach championed globally by Guyana.

A few days ago I was a panellist on one of the Caribbean’s many breakfast programmes. The theme was the future of Caricom. My fellow participants and I agreed that what the region needed was leadership on twenty first century issues around which it might coalesce.

Climate change is such an issue.  If Caribbean leaders are able to agree on anything it should be the impact of global warming and the need for international support to address a pending crisis that is absolutely not of its making.

It is a potent external threat around which the people of the region can be mobilised; it affects almost everyone and certainly every nation; it has clear enemies and clear solutions; it is not (or should not be) subject to petty nationalisms; it allows the region to occupy the moral high ground.

Success regionally and internationally lies in finding a spokesman or woman who can articulate this and the region’s position on a world stage in a manner that will enable Caribbean people to continue to feel proud of the Caribbean as a region.

Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org