On September 10 2019, the Hon. Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, delivered the 16th Raúl Prebisch Lecture to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva. She spoke of the plight of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the face of the climate crisis and called for renewed multilateral collaboration and moral leadership to combat climate change.
One of the most poignant aspects of Prime Minister Mottley’s intervention was her reminder to the global community that SIDS are frontline states in the war on climate change, notwithstanding the fact that they are among the least responsible for this phenomenon.
Between 20-27 September, thousands of young people from over 150 countries grabbed the world’s attention with global climate strikes which were meant to call attention to the climate change crisis and demand an end to the age of fossil fuels, the use of which is among the major contributors to the climate crisis. Furthermore, on 23 September, the United Nations (UN) hosted a “Climate Action Summit” in New York where the Secretary General of the UN invited countries to present their strategies for helping to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Importantly, the United States (US), one of the major emitters of greenhouse gases, was absent from this summit.
The recent devastation of Grand Bahama and Abaco in The Bahamas by hurricane Dorian was a harsh reminder of the fact that the Caribbean is one of the most disaster-prone areas of the globe. We are prone to hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes (both undersea and above ground), flooding, droughts and the list goes on. Some will argue that just about every country is in the path of a natural disaster of one kind or another. However, what makes the Caribbean and other SIDS unique is their high degree of susceptibility to weather events and other natural disasters.
For most if not all SIDS, including many in the Caribbean, climate change is an existential crisis that has the potential to decimate both our populations and economies. In the not too distant future, climate change would likely result in some low-lying SIDS having to evacuate most or all of their populations and create what will become “refugees of climate change”. In terms of the economic impact, the weather events associated with climate change have and will continue to destroy important public infrastructure, food production and disrupt international trade flows. The cost of rebuilding will also add to national debt and worsen an already fragile fiscal situation in many SIDS.
The Global Development Institute estimates that if Caribbean governments decide against any form of action to combat the impacts of climate change, the cost of inaction is projected to amount to over US$22 billion annually by 2050 – equalling 10 percent of the current size of the Caribbean economy. This is a staggering figure by any measure, and it underscores the urgency of the situation that we are faced with.
Caribbean governments do have a role to play in building resilience to climate change in their own jurisdictions. However, for a region whose global carbon footprint is minimal, climate change impacts the Caribbean disproportionately. In light of this, our international partners, including the major emitters of greenhouse gases, also have a moral obligation to assist the Caribbean in building its resilience to climate change. We need more resilient public infrastructure, we need more and better river and sea defence mechanisms, and we also need the means to transition more rapidly to clean energy. Very importantly, the large emitters of greenhouse gases also have a moral obligation to decarbonize in the hope that we can halt and reverse the damage already done.