Cultivating a climate of change

Stuart Mole

On the eve of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, Stuart Mole revisits the Commonwealth’s groundbreaking 1989 Langkawi Declaration on the Environment. He considers its lasting impact and how it helped shape climate change awareness, as well as the role the Commonwealth still plays in global environmental policy 

The exotic islands of Langkawi, off the north-west coast of Malaysia, were an idyllic location for a meeting of Commonwealth leaders 23 years ago. The 1989 Kuala Lumpur heads of government meeting had dealt with all the formal business, including the election of a successor to the then Secretary-General, Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal. Sonny’s swansong – at the leaders’ ‘retreat’ at the Pelangi Beach Resort in Langkawi – was to urge heads of government to agree to the Langkawi Declaration on the Environment. 

For the first time, Commonwealth leaders took a stand on environmental issues. Acknowledging the “serious deterioration in the environment and the threat this poses to the well-being of present and future generations”, the declaration pointed to “past neglect in managing the natural environment and resources”. It continued, “The environment has been degraded by decades of industrial and other forms of pollution, including unsafe disposal of toxic wastes, the burning of fossil fuels, nuclear testing and non-sustainable practices in agriculture, fishery and forestry.” It was a groundbreaking statement at a time when the world was largely silent on environmental challenges. But its origins lay some years before. 

The 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment had put environmental concerns on the international agenda. That same year, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) was established. Despite this, some of the messages of the embryonic environmental lobby were seen by many as ‘antigrowth’ and therefore ‘anti-development’, harking back to some lost agrarian idyll. There was no formed view among scientists about the global effects of pollution – what warnings there were about damage to ‘Mother Earth’ seemed to have little relevance in a world grappling with the more immediate problems of poverty and injustice. 

The World Commission on Environment and Development – later to be known as the Brundtland Commission – was to have a major impact in changing this mindset. Its chairman was the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, and among those recruited as members was Shridath Ramphal. Having already experienced the Brandt (1980) and Palme (1982) commissions, Ramphal and his colleagues saw clearly some of the connections that now needed to be made – between poverty and resource depletion; prosperity and development; and global security and mutual interest. The result was the concept of ‘sustainable development.’ 

One of Ramphal’s senior advisers drafted in to help with the Brundtland Report was Vince Cable (later to become a British MP and cabinet minister). He described the report’s conclusions in these terms: “At its core was (and is) the belief that the alleviation of poverty is both an objective in itself and central to reducing environmental degradation.” The final report, ‘Our Common Future’, was published in 1987 and offered a widely accepted definition of sustainable development as being “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

Barely two months later, Commonwealth leaders met in Vancouver where they were moved by a speech from the softly spoken president of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He pointed out that a 1-metre rise in sea levels would result in 80 percent of the Maldives being inundated, effectively wiping the country out. He added, in something of an understatement, “Few states stand to lose as much as the Maldives from the adverse effects of global warming.” 

It was a plea his fellow heads of government could not ignore, and Secretary-General Ramphal was tasked with establishing a Commonwealth expert group to study the effects of sea-level rise and climate change.

Heading the study was the eminent British scientist Sir Martin Holdgate. The group began its work a year before the establishment of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The resulting Holdgate Report, ‘Climate Change: Meeting the Challenge’, showed the devastating effects of climate change on Commonwealth countries as a result of the melting of the polar ice caps. 

Examining the impact of 1- and 2-metre rises in sea levels, the report made clear that not only were small island nations – like the Maldives, Tuvalu and large parts of Kiribati and Tonga – at severe risk of inundation, but larger low-lying nations, such as Bangladesh and Guyana, could also be substantially affected. The main victims of these developments would be the world’s poor. 

In presenting the Holdgate Report to Commonwealth leaders in Malaysia, Shridath Ramphal described climate change as “truly global in its implications.” In response, heads of government, through the Langkawi Declaration, stated that they were “deeply concerned at the serious deterioration in the environment and the threat this poses to the well-being of present and future generations”. And furthermore, that

“any delay in taking action to halt this progressive deterioration will result in permanent and irreversible damage.” 

The Lankgawi Declaration – and the Holdgate Report that was its particular inspiration – had a far-reaching effect. It provided valuable underpinning for the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio Earth Summit) and it ensured Commonwealth country support for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The declaration highlighted the impact of climate change on the poor and the vulnerable, including small island states, and encouraged the formation of a small states lobby on climate and energy issues – the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). By its use of reputable scientific study, Langkawi also gave weight to the emerging work of the IPCC and highlighted the need for broad agreement on the science of climate change. 

The Langkawi Declaration undoubtedly encouraged ratification of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Hailed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date”, Montreal provided the template for the far more ambitious and all-encompassing Kyoto Protocol. But progress thereafter was fitful – paralysed for long periods by the refusal of President George Bush to commit the USA to joining Kyoto. In 2007, the Commonwealth sought to give fresh impetus to high-level agreement on climate change with its Lake Victoria Commonwealth Climate Change Action Plan. The valuable efforts it made to build a consensus with other world leaders at the Trinidad and Tobago Summit in 2009 demonstrated that the Commonwealth had lost none of its ability to be of service to the world. The huge disappointment of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference of 2009, only partly redeemed by advances at the Durban Climate Change Conference of 2011, showed the limitations of a Commonwealth role in global climate change action. This was further weakened by Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol at the end of 2011. 

As the preparations are made for Rio+20 in June, the Commonwealth will remember the words of Secretary-General Ramphal: “The Commonwealth cannot negotiate for the world – but it can help the world to negotiate.” 

About the author:

Stuart Mole is Honorary Fellow in Politics at Exeter University and the former Director of the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s Office


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Amnesty International