Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Obama’s climate diplomacy with Cuba

Published:Monday | March 21, 2016 | 3:00 AMOliver Leighton-Barrett

When he steps off Air Force One and on to the warm tarmac of Cuba's José Marti Airport today, President Obama will become the first sitting US president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years, leaving no doubt that normalisation between the world's leading democracy and one of the world's last Marxist-Leninist holdouts has begun in earnest.

A chorus of critics, to include Florida state Senator Marco Rubio, have argued that Obama has essentially made a Faustian bargain with the devil, subordinating America's commitment to the freedom of the Cuban people for a cheap shot at legacy. Notwithstanding the cheers and jeers surrounding this visit that, in various ways, have influenced the president's US-Cuba strategic calculus, there is a middle ground that Obama can traverse that might lower the volume on the sellout rhetoric.

In 2013, Associated Press (AP) reporters were given exclusive access to a Cuban government study focused on the impacts of climate change on the island's shorelines. In the study, Cuban scientists disclosed that Cuba's 3,500 miles of coastline is at serious risk. According to The AP, "their discoveries were so alarming that officials didn't share the results with the public to avoid causing panic." And it's not hard to appreciate why Cuban officials were so alarmed.

Their findings revealed that rising sea levels will "seriously damage 122 Cuban towns, beaches would be submerged, freshwater sources would be tainted, and croplands rendered infertile. In all, seawater could penetrate up to 1.2 miles inland in low-lying areas, as oceans rise nearly three feet by 2100."

According to geologist Adan Zuniga of Cuba's Centre for Coastal Ecosystems Research, even the most iconic stretch of Cuban beach - Varadero beach - a destination that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, is losing approximately four feet of coastline each year from erosion. Some officials like Jorge Alvarez, director of Cuba's government-run Centre for Environmental Control and Inspection, frame the challenge using more poignant language, telling AP reporters, "The government ... realised that for an island like Cuba, long and thin, protecting the coasts is a matter of national security."




Climate change doesn't recognise ideological or geographic boundaries. The same body of water that threatens to take a big bite out of one of Cuba's primary economic drivers is doing the same to dozens of cities along the coastline of the southernmost state of its nemesis to the north - Florida.

At upcoming regional and international conferences on climate and disaster risk reduction, Cuban environmental experts might learn directly from US Army Corps of Engineers experts that an alarming three to seven inches of sea-level rise is projected for Florida by 2030. The encroaching seawater will only amplify and deepen challenges that coastal Florida communities already face, including flooding, storm surges during hurricanes, saltwater intrusion into aquifers, and, of course, beach erosion.

The existential threat to Cuba and Florida's tourism centres - manifest in climate change - offers a common cause that academics, scientists, and other stakeholder communities on both sides of the Florida Straits can collaborate on.

In his 2015 National Security Strategy, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to ensuring that America remains the standard-bearer for human rights and democracy across the world, stating, "We are upholding our enduring commitment to the advancement of democracy and human rights - and to support open governments and open societies." To operationalise this pledge across one of the most closed, yet promising societies, climate diplomacy should be fully leveraged as a tool to trust build and influence Cuban civil society.

Cuba would hardly be a new test bed for US climate diplomacy.

President Obama's executive order on climate-resilient international development already requires US agencies to factor climate-resilience considerations into international development work. Many nations have already benefited from US grants and other types of investments focused exclusively on helping communities to build up resilience capacities. Now is the right time to not only add Cuba to this mix, but to make it the crown jewel of American climate diplomacy.

• Oliver Leighton-Barrett is a retired US naval officer and a contributing writer for Foreign Policy Association. He resides in Miami, Florida. Email feedback to and