The Maldives Forum for Climate Vulnerable Countries began this morning (Monday) and has got off to a quick start. A number of countries are here at mostly Ministerial level from the Caribbean, Africa, South and South-east Asia, and the Pacific.
From President Nasheed of the Maldives down, speakers have been calling for an ambitious outcome from Copenhagen - but also for vulnerable countries to take actions themselves to protect their futures, especially in the area of low carbon development. These messages will develop over the two-day event.
What's been interesting to see has been the recognition across continents and different forms of climate impacts, that such countries share a common threat. This could build into a determination to create a louder voice from such countries in the final month to Copenhagen, and beyond.
I'm at the Forum, accompanied by my colleague Sabra who works on climate and other issues based at the British High Commission in Colombo. We're looking out for video material to give a sense of what it's like here (not helped by unseasonal wind and rain storms), and what participants are hoping for. In this first video we have a look at the extent of the erosion that's already taking place in the Maldives, thanks to sea level rise.
The next opportunity for vulnerable countries to get together to deliver a political message is the Climate Vulnerable Countries' Forum to be hosted by the Maldives on 9 and 10 November. The Maldives conjures up images of a luxury tourist destination of beautiful beaches, reefs and crystal clear water. But because of its physical make-up, like other low-lying island states it is also extremely vulnerable to climate change already, and into the future. And the livelihoods of the Maldives people and others in similar environments are under direct threat: sea level rise causes erosion and contamination of fresh water supplies, and more destructive storm surges; while sea temperature rise kills the corals from which tourism benefits, and disrupts migration routes for the fish on which other business depends
So it's no surprise that President Nasheed of the Maldives has made climate change a top priority. Earlier this year he flagged up the risk that the population of countries like his would have to plan to move elsewhere, raising a complex range of issues. (Some communities in the Pacific are already facing that reality). Recently he convened an underwater Cabinet meeting to draw attention to the sea-level issue, as I commented before (it's amazing the number of people who've mentioned that to me - it really grabbed attention around the world).
The UK supports the convening of this Forum, for reasons I've covered in my previous blogs. We do not see it as an attempt to create a new negotiating bloc at the UN, or to cut across existing processes in any way. But we do see a need for countries around the world, especially the bigger economies, to increase efforts including at the political level to achieve a good outcome at Copenhagen next month. One month before that, a direct reminder of what's at stake for climate vulnerable countries, and how they propose to move forwards themselves, couldn't be better timed.
The participants at the Forum will be a diverse range from climate vulnerable regions, ranging from the roof of the world (Nepal) to those facing threat from the sea (Bangladesh and Vietnam), with representatives from mainland Africa and the Caribbean and Pacific islands too. The Maldives have invited the UK and other countries to attend as observers. UK Ministers have agreed that I should do so, so I will be travelling out there over the weekend. I'll have a camera with me so hope to be able to send back some footage of what is, I think, the first get-together of countries with such a stake in the outcome of Copenhagen.
A practical example of our desire to help climate vulnerable countries find their voice, was the invitation to a number of them to attend the Major Economies Forum (MEF) which Ed Miliband hosted in central London earlier this week.
This was the sixth meeting of that group, bringing together the world's largest established and developing economies to look at climate issues outside the framework of the main UN negotiations. As hosts and co-chairs with the US, we agreed to invite some vulnerable countries to participate for the first time throughout, and Lesotho and the Maldives were able to do so at Ministerial level. That allowed the meeting to hear views direct from such countries on critical issues such as climate finance (as a number of NGOs have also urged us to do). That in turn should inform our and other countries' positions in the run up to Copenhagen.
One unintended consequence of the attendance at the MEF of Maldives Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam, was that he missed the underwater Cabinet meeting held last Saturday in the Maldives by his President. Minister Aslam told me he was particularly sorry about that as he'd been doing the preparatory diving training in with his collleagues over the previous weeks. However, I think it adds to the story that, at the time the Maldives Cabinet was so dramatically drawing world attention to the consequences of global warming - one of their key members was on a mission to take that same message in its technical and political complexity to the heart of the world's biggest economies.
If you haven't already picked this up, you'll want to look out for the 4 degree map which our Ministers launched yesterday. It brings out starkly the threat not just to the less developed, poorer regions of the world - but to us all. That's a sobering reminder that the moral and economic case for helping the countries already on the global climate frontline, is integral to generating the will to protect the whole human race.
I said before that my role centred on helping climate vulnerable countries to find their "voice", particularly in the run-up to Copenhagen. As we approach the last few weeks of intensive engagement, here's a bit more about that.
The Foreign Office done a lot of thinking over the past couple of years about how we can add to the overall UK Government effort on climate change. That is, after all, arguably the world's number one global issue - given its effects on everyone alive now and in the future. So - as my fellow Foreign Office bloggers are showing - we've been looking at ways to raise awareness of climate issues worldwide, and to link climate to national political, economic and social issues as well as the environment. Whatever their stage of wealth or development, nations across the world need to factor climate change into their thinking and planning across the board.
That also means engaging a broader group of leaders, from Heads of State down. Ultimately action on climate needs political will. Which is where the Foreign Office worldwide network comes into its own as an influencing tool - working with leaders to understand the implications of climate change in their country and region, and what they can do about it.
Within that framework I've been looking with DfID at the large number of countries, many of them on the global frontline of climate change, which so far have had less of a say in the negotiations leading up to Copenhagen. Often such countries lack individual political or economic power, and didn't themselves create the problem - but have been the first to suffer from the effects of past emissions. We believe that by acting together to maximise their influence, vulnerable countries can exert real leverage on both the richer, industrialised countries and the emerging newer economies in pursuit of a high ambition outcome from Copenhagen.
I'll develop that idea in my next blog. But I'll just finish here by saying it was good to be invited yesterday evening to speak at the 20th birthday party of an organisation, FIELD (Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development), which has long campaigned in this area. I won't claim that we always see eye to eye on everything, since you wouldn't expect a Government's perspective always to be aligned with civil society expertise. But I think our desire to work on common objectives, and preparedness to discuss and address differing views, mutually strengthens us and benefits those we are trying to help, notably in the vulnerable countries themselves.
How tragic an understatement that last comment has proved. While I was visiting Hanoi, and then on to Manila, I was aware that colleagues in both Embassies were keeping a wary eye on the weather forecasts, including the possible effects on my own tight travel programme. There was a mild tropical depression over the region which at that stage, in early September, didn't develop. Barely three weeks later we have all watched in horror the battering that first Manila and the surrounding area, and then Vietnam, took from full-scale typhoons. It's been sad to hear from colleagues of the devastation faced by individuals and familes, including in some cases those I met during my visit - such as the Christian Aid representative in Manila. Daphne Villanueva has kindly agreed to me adding this link to personalise such a widescale event.
It may sound cheap but it really does drive home the human impact when you meet someone who then suffers in such a way. We need to be careful not to confuse short-term weather patterns with longer-term climate change - let alone the other major environmental disasters also seen across Asia over the past week. But equally, it's important to acknowledge the power that the weather has to affect life and livelihoods around the world - and following from that, why unchecked climate change is so dangerous. There is some scientific base for saying that the intensity of storms is increasing with warmer sea temperatures, though not necessarily their frequency - though that's pretty academic if you're unlucky enough to be caught in the path of a hurricane in the Caribbean or an Asian typhoon. I hope it doesn't take a similarly catastrophic weather event in the UK or Europe to drive home the reality of the threat to us all from changing weather patterns which are already being affected by man-made global warming.
Our Ambassador in Thailand shares his experiences of Typhoon Ketsana and discusses the impacts of climate change on Thailand.
All of this gives added urgency to our objective of protecting poorer and more vulnerable communities around the world from climate change, as part of the global deal needed at Copenhagen. More on that, and my role in it, in my next update.
Visiting Vietnam for the first time has been an eye-opening experience. It shares with many other countries an extreme vulnerability to climate change - sea-level rise will impact on the livelihoods of millions in the river deltas and along the extended coastline, putting food security in jeopardy alongside other impacts. (A recent study by the Asia Development Bank, supported by the UK Government, found that rice production could halve by the end of this century if nothing is done).
But the Vietnamese Government has got hold of the threat and is responding. Both the President and PM are involved, with Ministers from a range of Departments working together to implement their National Plan. It's an example from which other vulnerable countries can draw lessons. It was also good to see how a country like Vietnam is keen to seize opportunities to develop a low carbon future, eg in renewable energy and energy efficiency - without waiting for the world's bigger economies to lead the way. Again - an example to others.
The Vietnamese are also keen to explore my particular brief - to see if climate vulnerable countries can work together more to exert positive pressure for an ambitious outcome at the Copenhagen Climate Conference this December. We believe it's important both for moral and economic reasons that the bigger economies of the world should take account of the plight of vulnerable people around the world in working for an ambitious outcome at Copenhagen.
On a personal note, I didn't see much of Hanoi beyond the meeting venues, but even in that time was struck by the relaxed feel of the city. Relaxed that is unless you were driving, given the huge number of scooters and mopeds on the streets and the at-most casual observance of road rules. At times it felt as if we were being enveloped by a gentle flood as humans on two wheels flowed up to and around our vehicle, with all road users apparently giving way gracefully to each other without any obvious temptation to road rage or other frustrations. Would the concept of "naked streets" work so well in the UK, I wonder? Amazingly enough I saw no accidents or collisions of any kind despite the thousands of individual moving objects at times - though I'm reliably informed by colleagues in Hanoi that accidents do happen, and that the onset of rainy weather quickly removes the romantic quality of the scenes I witnessed.