The Caribbean and its 40 million inhabitants face unprecedented vulnerability due to the phenomena that is climate change. This week on “The Global African,” host Bill Fletcher, Jr. sits down with climate and development scientist Ramon Bueno and Caribbean climate change activists Stina Herberg and Empress Modupe Olufunmi-Jacobs to talk mitigation and the activism behind the threat.
BILL FLETCHER JR., HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Climate change–the most significant threat to human existence of our time, actively wreaking havoc on coastlines and the planet as a whole. Perhaps no region in the world stands to suffer the phenomenon’s effects more than the countries of the Caribbean, countries which, ironically, contribute the least of such emissions. Assessments of the region report unmitigated disasters imminent.
That’s this week on The Global African. I’m Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us.
FLETCHER: The Caribbean and its 40 million inhabitants face unprecedented vulnerability due to climate change. In the Caribbean, 70 percent of its inhabitants live in coastal settlements and heavily rely on the fishing and tourism industry as means for survival. As shorelines disappear due to ferocious storm surges and sea levels rise, transforming the geography of these small islands, the people of the Caribbean stand to suffer epic economic and social costs. One hundred and ten thousand people stand to be displaced, and some 150 multimillion dollar resorts could be lost. Let’s be clear: these are not predictions for the distant future. According to some models, this could occur in 20 years.
Today on The Global African, we’ll discuss the dynamics of climate change in the Caribbean, as well as the struggle for climate justice in the region.
Joining us in our discussion about the climate crisis in the Caribbean is Ramón Bueno. Ramón Bueno is a consultant specializing in modeling potential economic impacts from climate changes. Previously, he worked for several years as a staff scientist in the former Climate Economics Group at the Stockholm Environment Institute in Somerville, Massachusetts. He is also the author of the influential report entitled The Caribbean and Climate Change: The Cost of Inaction.
Mr. Bueno, thank you for joining us.
RAMÓN BUENO, ECONOMICS AND CLIMATE CHANGE EXPERT: Thank you for having me.
FLETCHER: Let me jump right into this with a somewhat morbid question. In reading your report, I found myself thinking about Atlantis. I mean, it felt like the entire Caribbean would become the next Atlantis. I mean, am I overstating the case?
BUENO: Well, it’s one of those things where it depends really on what ends up happening. And that was kind of the motivation behind the report by my colleagues and I (there were several of us who worked on it together), which was to take a look at what’s likely to happen if current trends continue and the projected–on one of the business-as-usual type scenarios, projected increases in temperature, sea level rise, and storm intensities hitting the area, on the one hand, and comparing that to a more moderate scenario that basically assumes that the world gets its act together and starts doing things to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. And even under that scenario, there will be some sea level rise in the Caribbean, you know, maybe seven, eight inches instead of three-plus feet, a couple of degrees Fahrenheit increase average instead of eight or nine. And so even that scenario will have pretty strong impacts on the islands.
But the idea is to look at the difference between two possible worlds facing the Caribbean, say, in less than 100 years and see how these islands–and they’re very different. You know, it’s easy to say “the Caribbean”. There are a lot of things that they have in common. They’re surrounded by water, so sea level rises is not–it’s not a distant phenomenon for them. But there are a lot of differences between the islands. Some of them are in the paths of hurricanes on a regular basis. Others rarely–you know, like, Aruba doesn’t really–Trinidad, Tobago, they don’t really get too many hurricanes, whereas other islands, you know, Saint [Kitts and] Nevis or many islands in the main path, and the bigger islands, like Cuba, a lot of territory, so those have a lot of exposure to storms. All have exposure to sea-level rise. Some islands, like the Bahamas or others, are pretty flat, you know, the highest elevations are not that high, whereas the bigger islands–Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica–they have a lot of interior, a lot of mountains. So they do have many different vulnerabilities. And then, of course, there’s the socioeconomic vulnerabilities and levels of preparedness that differentiate the islands as well. So we wanted to capture some of the intricacies and the differences between how the islands are likely to be affected.
But the bottom line is nobody gets away–if things don’t improve in terms of the world getting its act together and dealing with this issue, nobody gets away easy from this. Some islands that are richer and more developed, like Puerto Rico, as a percent of their economy stand to suffer less, but it’s still–as an absolute amount, it means a lot of recurring damages on an annual basis. So that’s kind of what we were trying to get at.
And you’re right. I mean, it can seem like a grim picture, especially for islands that depend heavily on things like tourism or who are very flat or in the path of hurricanes or very poor like Haiti or–you know, that if you get hit by repeated natural disasters, it just never quite can get out from under it. So that is a grim picture.
FLETCHER: For those that are in denial of climate change, that it exists at all or whatever, could you just give a couple of examples of the impact of climate change and emissions and what’s happening in the Caribbean?
BUENO: It’s one thing for people to say, look, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, exactly when, and so on, but even the scientists have–there’s levels of uncertainty. But if you live on an island, whether it’s Grenada or–there are many islands; you can take, you know, whatever–that’s in the path of hurricanes, that’s where the population lives, mostly within a mile of the coast, and depends on tourism recurring every year, and all of a sudden you start entering decades in the future, in the not-that-distant future, where all of a sudden the ocean is encroaching on the beaches and on the property along where the population’s concentrated, there might be roads that might be the main roads–in Barbados, the main road is really along the coast. And now the storms become stronger and you have more damage. People stay away. So your economy starts going into a downward spiral, and more and more of the nations’ budgets start going towards just getting back from under natural disasters. If that starts happening with more frequency, it’s nothing to laugh at. I mean, it becomes a serious problem. And if it’s happening in the entire area where many of your neighbors are undergoing the same kind of phenomenon, you know, it’s–never mind the health of the population; if temperature–you know, this is an area that’s pretty hot year-round. If temperatures on average start rising, you know, five, eight, ten degrees, the number of days above 90, 95 degrees start going to becoming intolerable. Night times, if you have a lot of elderly people or children that have difficulty dealing with that, then, again, it becomes a cycle that feeds on itself. And, unfortunately, the livelihood of the people in those places can become very tough.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and many islands are actually doing what they can. But, unfortunately, the main driver of what’s going to happen to them depends on the world community getting its act together and acting in a timely manner to forestall the worst of the scientific projections. And, again, the scientific projections aren’t saying this is exactly what’s going to happen by 2080, but they’re indicating a range of things around a potentially very bad situation. And if we start taking actions that make a difference and start reducing emissions, going to a more cleaner way of producing our life, into a more sustainable life, the energy that is cleaner and not polluting and–we’ll all gain, from a health perspective, but also primarily because these dangers will be alleviated–it won’t be as bad as the forecasts could be.
FLETCHER: You know, in your report and subsequent reports that have highlighted the same issue, one of the things that jumps out is how is the rest of the world responding. And specifically, to what extent are countries like the United States, Russia, and other places, other industrialized countries, that have been the main perpetrators in global emissions, to what extent are they taking responsibility for this? Do you have any sense of global policy changes that are underway?
BUENO: Yeah, that is the key question, really. And depending on–when you think about it, it can be very sad, depressing, or occasionally a little bit more optimistic. The big debate has been, over the last several years, between the more developed countries, who say, oh, we need to do something, but everybody else needs to be on board, and the developing countries–I mean, I’m simplifying, but it did have these two sides saying, wait a minute, you’re the ones who in your development and your creation of industries have contributed most of the greenhouse gases that are in the atmosphere that are taking it’s–that brought us to this situation. You have to go first. You have the money. You have to help us get out of this. And the other side of the developed countries had been–you know, and it is backed by a lot of analysis saying, yes, but going forward, even if we bring our emissions down to zero, the development in the greater part of the world–China, India, Africa, and Latin America–will overwhelm the contributions that have been from the developed countries up to now. And they’re both true. But the responsibility to act and to move first has to be with those who have (A) the historical responsibility for getting us here and (B) have the resources. So it really is in everyone’s interests, even in the developed countries’ interests, in coordinating the needed research and investments to make sure that the developing world has an alternative that isn’t the same one for developing industry and commerce and so on in a way that isn’t following the historic pattern, which is the more development there is, the greater consumption of energy, the greater greenhouse gases. So that’s something that is where the divorce needs to happen. And countries aren’t doing [inaud.] Some advanced countries are doing quite well in moving along those lines, like Germany and Spain, and the U.S. is taking some steps–not so much at the federal level, although now there seems to be a beginning of it, but there are a lot of regional initiatives, states, and groups of states. And even in the developing world, a lot of countries realize that China is the number-one polluter in a way, now that it’s reached this level of economic activity. But China is also one of the biggest investors in solar and wind and other energy technologies, can say they see what the future looks like, and they know that they have to change that.
So I think it–and international politics and policy, it’s very complex. There’s a lot of finger-pointing, for years and years. But I think we’re at the point where studies show that every few years, every five years that we let go by pointing fingers, we really make it that much more costly and difficult down the line. And I think it’s beginning to sink in.
In the next year, the world community, through the UN, has set itself the deadline of 2015 to come up with a good agreement on how to proceed. There’s a lot of skepticism because they haven’t been able to do it in the past, but it needs to happen. There is no alternative. As my colleague, Frank Ackerman, who I used to work for, has written a book, Can We Afford the Future?–and the question sounds silly, but it really is the question, right? Can we afford the future? And do we have a choice, really?
FLETCHER: Well, that raises a very important question. What’s the relationship, then, between addressing these issues, both globally as well as within the Caribbean, and an alternative economic framework?
BUENO: There are industries that are beginning to see, you know, we can do quite well if we are the first movers into these areas. And so even in the traditional energy industry, some people are hedging their bets and beginning to move into healthier, cleaner technologies. But I think one of the interesting things along that way is that in the business community there’s a growing recognition in the investment world that this whole issue of risky investments, that at some point there is a growing realization that just because you own a huge amount of reserves of oil and coal and all that, as the world consensus changes towards leaving those on the ground unburned, unprocessed, if you keep buying and holding on to these /hætsəd/, they may become what’s called stranded assets. You’re going to–so there’s a growing pressure in the business investment community from many groups. There’s one [incompr.] that does a lot of work in that, to highlight that at some point, even from a financial–even if you’re the purest capitalist in the world, from the financial perspective, those are going to be considered risky investments. There’s a study that just came out by an organization called Risky Business looking at the potential damages and costs to the U.S. economy. And basically these are people who have led the financial world–Bloomberg, Rubin, Paulson. These are people who have led our government in these areas and private industry, and they’re saying this is not some fringe activists saying one thing or another; this is real, this is a real threat.
And so I think we’re going to see a transition. The question is how quickly it can happen. And I think people being involved and educated– and actively, politically–is an important part. Communities have an impact if they’re mobilized, if they’re participating and holding their representatives accountable.
FLETCHER: Ramón Bueno, thank you very much for this discussion. It’s clear that we’re going to have to do a lot more than keep our fingers crossed if we’re going to prevent another Atlantis to emerge in the Caribbean and with other island nations. Thank you very much for this.
BUENO: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us on this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. We’ll be back in a moment.
FLETCHER: Joining us as we engage in this discussion about climate change and the impact on the Caribbean are two guests, Ms. Stina Herberg and Empress Olufunmi-Jacobs.
Stina Herberg is an activist working towards sustainability and poverty eradication. She is the current principal at the Richmond Vale Academy in Saint Vincent in the Caribbean.
Empress Modupe Olufunmi-Jacobs is a Haitian-born urban environmental educator and leader in the Inivershall Rastafari Movement in Saint Vincent, leading tree planting actions, as well as community gardening.
Welcome very much Ms. Sternberg and Empress Olufunmi-Jacobs.
EMPRESS MODUPE OLOFUNMI-JACOBS, ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATOR, INIVERSHALL RASTAFARI MOVEMENT: Thank you.
STINA HERBERG, ACTIVIST FOR SUSTAINABILITY AND POVERTY ERADICATION: Thank you.
OLOFUNMI-JACOBS: We’re glad to be here.
FLETCHER: It’s our pleasure. Could you tell us a little bit about the project that you all are working on, what sort of work that you’re conducting?
HERBERG: Well, the Saint Vincent Climate Compliance Conference we initiated in 2012 due to all the new knowledge that we have gained about climate change and that we actually really need to take action. So, from the Academy we will always be a small group, and then we joined with a big group, for example groups like Empress is representing.
So what we did the first year, because a lot of people in Saint Vincent, they know the climate is changing; not everybody knows why, but they really know it’s changing, ’cause it’s striking us every year. So we thought we’ll have to get ready. Then, to get people on board, we started to mobilize many people to pick up trash, which was the environmental problem they could easily identify. So we went through rivers, streets, beaches with schoolchildren, all kinds of people, and we picked up about ten tons of trash, put that to the landfill. Then we had furthered into making our three-planting actions and cooperating with organizations to do community gardens. Besides that, we’re doing a lot of gardening here at the Academy. But the tree planting, we planted 10,000 trees, and we’re about to plant another 15,000 trees this year, also with an organization that’s organizing the Olympic Games in tree planting.
FLETCHER: So what has been the response of people in Saint Vincent to your initiatives?
HERBERG: Well, I think the response has been, actually, a little bit over–way over our expectation, because what we started out doing–because when you start a program like this, how do you actually go about it? So we went out in the villages nearby and we talked to 250 people. That we called “Let’s Talk Green”. A lot of people came, a lot of people going, to try to understand why is the climate changing, why can’t I farm like I used to farm. And I think a lot of people have been taking it all very, very well. Also, people have been really easy to mobilize to plant trees, and I think that’s also a sign that people in this country, they are ready, really ready to make this island greener, a climate-compliant island. Of course, there is a lot to do, but we are really on the way. So I think the response has been great.
FLETCHER: Was Saint Vincent deforested?
OLOFUNMI-JACOBS: Well, there’s some deforestation, yes, but not to the extent where it’s really detrimental. But we do have the problem of deforestation. And a lot of the–it’s tied to having to do with land management and access to land in farming. So–because also they’re building a lot of houses, and some of that deforestation has to do with that, too, placing people in homes and so on.
FLETCHER: What sort of response have you gotten from political officials in the government?
HERBERG: Well, as a long-term or, you could say, life activist, you can get politicians on board, but it’s very important for groups like us to understand that a lot of initiation of projects and implementations comes from people. And our challenge has been to find who in the government we can work with. And there is a lot of very passionate individuals in the government who wants to have a green and clean nation. And then it’s our challenge to find out how do we work together, what do we do together.
And we have–this year is only our second year into this ten-year program. I would say that the response from the politicians and the government is really picking up, and we really appreciate that. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture have just launched one new tree planting campaign together with us, and we’ve had the initial meetings with the ministry of health and environment, and we are getting on board their meetings and so on. So I would say that it’s a good progress. But it’s good to realize that if the groups out there want to do something, you’ve got to get started, because very often the politicians don’t start.
OLOFUNMI-JACOBS: I agree with Stina that it’s people power that’s going to help change this trend of global warming and climate change. For example, we have laws here against dumping, yet we don’t have the resources to enforce those laws. So waste management has been a big problem for us here, and we’re looking at ways in which we can manage waste. So we’re suggesting things like recycling, of particularly the plastics, and probably banning them, too, finding alternative sources to those types of petrochemical products. The Rastafari community has been strong in pushing for the legalization of hemp here, because we see a great potential in the hemp industry, in terms of providing alternative sources of fuel, alternative sources of medicine, alternative sources in terms of clothing, food. It’s an entire industry. As we can see with the United States legalizing that industry for particular medicinal use and so on, well, we’re pushing for the total legalization, in term of industrializing it and having it in a way that it makes an impact on the environment, a positive impact, not a negative impact, as it’s doing right now being an illegal plant.
FLETCHER: The lessons that you’ve learned in Saint Vincent, are they applicable in other parts of the Caribbean?
HERBERG: Yeah, absolutely. I think this is–’cause what we’re doing, it’s no magic. You know. Education is very important to get people on board. So I think that people could come and study with us in Saint Vincent if they find inspiration here, bring that back home. We are developing different study materials. And then we are developing, for example, nurseries so that we’re not developing it; it’s already developed. But we use all low-cost local solutions. And to start to clean up, you can always–I think you can nearly always get the local supermarket to donate you some plastic bags. And it is really to get going. And at the Academy here, we are training people from the Caribbean and from around the world to become environmental activists so people could come from all the different countries in the Caribbean, study and take action here at the Academy, and bring that right home.
FLETCHER: Thank you very much, both of you, for sharing this time with us and helping to give not just a presentation of the problems but some incredibly exciting responses that people can undertake in reacting to this climate crisis that could undermine the Caribbean and in fact the planet as a whole. Thank you both very much.
HERBERG: Okay. Thank you so much.
OLOFUNMI-JACOBS: Thank you. Thank you for having us.
FLETCHER: Thank you.
And thank you for joining us on this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. We’ll look for you next time.
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