Climate change tops UN General Assembly president's agenda

Ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda says sustainable development key to combating global warming

John Ashe, president of the United Nations General Assembly, speaks at the start of its 68th session in New York, Sept. 24, 2013.
Reuters/Andrew Burton/Pool

Ambassador John Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda, the newly elected president of the U.N. General Assembly, is familiar with overcoming barriers to opportunity and is determined to make a difference for those growing up in in poverty.

He was one of seven children born to parents who didn't complete high school. He grew up the grandchild of a man who signed his name with an X and the son of a woman who was a descendant of slave plantation owners on the island of Barbados.

Speaking at the opening of the General Assembly on Sept. 24, Ashe, perhaps reflecting on his experiences, told delegates, "It is not our limitations that define us. Rather, it is what we do to overcome them."

And there is a lot to overcome. The international community's eyes have been glued to diplomatic breakthroughs regarding Iran and Syria these past few weeks, with U.S. President Barack Obama speaking on the phone to Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (the first time the heads of government from the two nations have done so in more than 30 years) and the U.N. Security Council passing a resolution on Syria for the first time in the two-and-a-half-year conflict.

But for the islands of Antigua and Barbuda, home to fewer than 90,000 people, and its neighbors in the Caribbean, climate change is a more urgent threat to their security.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ashe cited sustainable development as the goal of his one-year term, with the aim of combating climate change. He has declared the theme of the 68th session of the General Assembly "The Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage," a reference to the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals, which are aimed at sweeping international change, like halving extreme poverty, by 2015. With little time left before the deadline, however, some countries have fallen woefully short of what they set out to accomplish.

Throughout his term, the 193 member states of the General Assembly will be in consultations on what the post-2015 agenda will look like. Ashe says that sustainable development wasn't a main focus in the original Millennium Development Goals and that he is setting his sights on making it one of the international communities' top priorities this time around.

Ashe said small island nations are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Islands in the Pacific Ocean such as Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands face the possibility of being completely flooded within decades. Caribbean islands are not yet in such a dire situation, but the effects of climate change could be nearly as devastating.

"In the Caribbean, one of the biggest dangers  and it's frequently overlooked  is the effect of a hurricane on the economy," Ashe said. "One hurricane can set back a country's economy by decades. And if a scientist predicts that these are going to be more frequent, you can imagine the alarm bells that are ringing down there in terms of climate change."

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