Climate Change and Vulnerability in Small Island States

Remarks by the Hon. Dr. Gale T.C. Rigobert, Minister for Education, Innovation, Gender Relations and Sustainable Development, Saint Lucia

26th January 2018

 “To bring together academics from different disciplines, alongside policymakers and practitioners, to reflect on the impact of, and responses to, climatic disasters affecting Small Island Developing States”.

I am deeply honoured by, and appreciative of, the opportunity to address you at this Symposium on Climate Change and Vulnerability in Small Island States. As I began to pen the remarks that follow, it dawned on me that my present portfolio, in effect, means that I may have come full-circle, or, if not, at least I now find myself at the intersection of theory and practice (what we refer to as PRAXIS), having spent a few years in academia, transitioning to public service and now, as a Minster of Government.

So I toyed with the irresistible idea of proffering an expose on Vulnerability, operationalising Herb Addo’s varied definitions of inherent vulnerability, induced vulnerability or courted vulnerability. In the context of today’s theme, with a focus on climate change in Small Island Developing States, it occurred to me almost immediately, that they were all applicable.

I come from Saint Lucia, ‘Helen of the West’, a six hundred and sixteen (616) square kilometre or two hundred and thirty-eight (238) square mile island, and I wonder whether size presents an inherent vulnerability; further exacerbated by the fact that the island is located along the hurricane belt of the Caribbean. Or, that perhaps my geographic location, nor size need necessarily present the vulnerabilities that are associated with climate change! Rather, that my country’s vulnerabilities are induced, more so, because of the actions of others in seemingly very distant places ….  And while not wanting to fall prey to habit of apportioning blame, how much of what we currently experience is a result of courted vulnerability… in other words, do we have a hand in, or some degree of responsibility for, our own circumstance?

As Minister with responsibility for the Climate Change Portfolio, and the island in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) that carries the mantle of Lead Head for Sustainable Development, the issue of climate change assumes a particularly high priority on our agenda. For those of you who may not be aware, CARICOM is a contingent of 15 member countries that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.   Saint Lucia is also part of a consortium referred to as the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), comprising 10 states and currently holds the chairmanship of the OECS Authority.

The conveners of this event are certainly on point, in recognizing that a full understanding of the factors contributing to climate change vulnerability, demands a multifaceted analysis. Moreover, its multiple repercussions on the physical environment, the economy, health, politics and social relations, require a multi-, cross- or inter- disciplinary approach to solutions.  Indeed, there is no sector, no facet, no stratum of society that is left untouched by the catastrophic effects of climate change in a small island.

Only last year, the hurricane season in the Caribbean revealed further, the high level of exposure of the region to severe weather-related events, exacerbated by climate change. Indeed, 2017 was anything but a ‘normal’ hurricane season, in terms of speed of system formation, strength and longevity; and the region being hit by two (2) Category five (5) hurricanes within a mere two weeks of each other, with consequences that will remain forever imprinted on the psyche of the survivors.  I need not elaborate on, nor rehash the graphic details of the aftermath, the carnage, the absolute devastation, resulting from the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria over the Caribbean islands.

While we hear that it is impossible to attribute a particular tropical storm or hurricane to climate change, it absolutely cannot be denied that climate change is making the consequences of these events in the region worse. It is unfortunate, that these impacts will continue to worsen as a result of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.  The science is clear on the ‘why’, and I have no doubt that this is well-known and understood by this audience.

The Paris Agreement promotes a three-pronged approach to climate change policy and regulation, which includes mitigation, adaptation and managing loss and damage.  On the latter, slow onset processes related to climate change, such as sea level rise and ocean acidification, are increasingly affecting the Caribbean region, leaving ecosystems and livelihoods hanging in the balance, and threatening the very existence of some low-lying countries. It still baffles me that the international community took so many years to arrive at a point where there is an Article on loss and damage in the 2015 Paris Agreement, noting that the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) first raised the spectre of permanent loss, due to sea level rise, at the UN Climate Change Conference in 1991!

While we recognise and appreciate the efforts made by some of our friends and partners in support of small island developing states (SIDS), the dismissal or superficial response by others who are in a position to assist; and the negligibility of the overall collective effort at the international level, remains especially disheartening and absolutely unacceptable.

However, small island people have always been, and will continue to be a resolute and resilient people.  So, even when the 10-day compassion phase has been exhausted, and we no longer make the headlines, quickly replaced by some other sensational story, we tread on. We continue to make strides in doing everything to show leadership in our transition to a low carbon economy, and to take steps to chart a more positive story of our own destiny, one in which we can better prepare for, respond to, and recover from, these human-induced climate events.

Saint Lucia is proud to be the first Caribbean country to join the Nationally Determined Contribution Partnership (NDCP).  Saint Lucia’s NDC is mitigation-focused, and we expect to implement interventions in the energy, electricity generation and transport sectors, based on a mix of solar, wind and geothermal energy initiatives. We are actively seeking and working with partners and investors in order to unpack and translate the targets under our NDCs into implementation plans, business opportunities and bankable projects and programmes, that are aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  In fact, we are hosting a Regional-NDC Investment Forum for the Caribbean in September of this year, with support from various benevolent partners.

As a politician and leader in a small island developing state, I use every available opportunity to make the clarion call for greater financial support, and more innovative and simplified access financing mechanisms to assist SIDS with adaptation and in our renewable energy efforts. However, further to this, particularly for this audience, I call on you to lend your assistance to SIDS, in providing technical and capacity building support, and partnering with us in presenting the evidence of this human-induced climate change and its adverse impacts on SIDS. We need to confront the fact that islands are faced with a reality where the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees, can be the difference between life and death for small islands.

It would be remiss of me not to make a special plea on behalf of CARICOM and the OECS, to join us in preparing peer reviewed papers that can be accepted at the level of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that will make us more visible on the map, in a manner that will cause the global community to notice, stand up and take decisive and meaningful action.

I am aware, that the discourse on the political economy of climate change can create unease in certain quarters. But, we must own up and wake up to some ghastly realities, though unsavory and politically unpalatable. We can no longer speak in hushed tones or platitudes about the “why”, “who” or the “what”, when the science speaks so loudly and clearly. Nor can we continue to rely on “expressions of empathy or sympathy” that evaporate before they materialize into any tangible and purposeful solution oriented intervention.

The very viability of our islands is now being called into question. Our policy agenda in the region regrettably has not kept pace with issues, such as climate refugees; displacement of families; gender and climate change and education in times of crisis/emergency. The recent example of Dominica (where scores of students had to seek school placements in other islands), underscores the need to continue to fulfil the right to education in times of disaster and in the transitionary period that follows.

Therefore, I am indeed heartened by the various topics that I see on the agenda, and especially the focus across the geographic areas of the SIDS, that is, Africa, the Pacific and Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. I trust that this exercise of introspection and academic inquiry will unearth and/or serve to better inform the issues that are of common concern and of potential mutual benefit to you, and us, as SIDS.

I close with the haunting questions: are our vulnerabilities, inherent, induced or courted? How much more can we do, in our respective spheres of influence, to stop, minimize, reduce or to stem the adverse effects of climate change on the millions who are most susceptible and exposed to its fury.

I thank the organizers, most sincerely, for giving me this opportunity.

Thank you for listening.

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