Every two years, leaders gather for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting*, also known as CHOGM. Last month, presidents, prime ministers, premiers and even a few kings came together in London to discuss shared global challenges and how to address them. And on one issue, there was broad agreement — the Commonwealth must address the causes of climate change and find ways to adapt to its impacts.

As part of CHOGM, the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council and the Commonwealth Secretariat convene business leaders to meet with the ministers and national leaders to discuss how to ensure a prosperous, vibrant and sustainable commonwealth. I was honored to participate in the meetings this year and speak on the topic of climate and disaster resilience.

Key areas of debate included the impacts of rising sea levels, understanding and managing risk, climate adaptation and sustainable wastewater management.

In one of the CHOGM sessions on island resilience, Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit noted that the nation now has the opportunity to be the first climate-resilient island as they look at rebuilding the majority of their infrastructure. They want to build back better, but must do so with a different model than historically followed, taking into account a broader approach, rather than just rebuilding what was damaged.

Island nations, especially those impacted by recent tropical cyclones in the Caribbean and South Pacific, face the compound challenges of more frequent and severe storms and the constant and increasing threat of sea-level rise. Dominica, for example, suffered $1.3 billion in damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017 — an amount equal to 224 percent of the island’s gross domestic product (GDP).

My comments as part of this session were focused on the need to understand the risks each country faces in designing a resilience plan, but also how we can use adaptive design to ensure continued responsiveness to a dynamic future. There’s a need to balance the costs and risks of resilience. Some risks can be managed by transferring them through insurance or other mechanisms, and other risks must be accepted. However, there are things we can do to mitigate the real and significant risks faced by these small islands and do so in ways that are appropriate for each situation and cost effective. Sometimes we just need to build smarter, with resilience top of mind. The additional benefit of investing in resilient infrastructure is that it creates jobs and economic growth.

Another discussion at CHOGM focused on the causes and drivers of state fragility and how developed nations can better support fragile states and help others avoid this fate. The discussion with ministers, non-governmental organizations and business leaders was chaired by former UK Prime Minister David Cameron on the occasion of a report from an independent panel he also chaired on state fragility causes and solutions. With two financial industry participants, I was asked to comment on the report and remarks by Rwandan President Paul Kagame on the challenges leaders face in fragile states. We stressed the need to look at climate issues, especially adaptation, as they are the principal drivers of fragility, leading to conflict, mass migration and loss of gross domestic product to drought and famine.

I was honored to close out my time at CHOGM with a brief conversation with HRH The Prince of Wales on the challenges of sustainable wastewater management in small island nations. Prince Charles spoke of his interest in addressing the energy and waste management needs of small islands, while protecting the oceans from pollution and helping people grow their economies sustainably. Through his foundation and sustainability team, The Prince has been deeply involved in these issues, and I look forward to continuing to work with his team on their efforts.

It was clear to me that there is a great desire across the entire commonwealth to be leaders in the issues related to climate change. Today, with innovations in technology and the ability to create hybrid gray and green infrastructure, we’re seeing greater potential to leverage these challenges as opportunities and find solutions that are long-lasting, adaptable and create healthier, more resilient economies and societies.

*Note: The Commonwealth of Nations comprises 53 states across six continents and represents nearly one third of the world’s population. Most member states were once part of the British Empire, the majority being island nations (counting Australia and the UK). With the exception of the United States, most of the English-speaking world belongs to the commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth II is the symbolic head of the commonwealth.

This blog post is part of a series covering critical infrastructure-related topics in the lead up to and during Infrastructure Week and this year’s theme #TimeToBuild.

Originally published 05.8.2018

Author: Josh Sawislak