Ian Hayles | Change tack on climate change
Fully aware of the cynicism with which many of your readers view statements from politicians, especially on subjects for which we had ministerial responsibilities when in government, I have been measured in my public utterances on water resources and climate change.
I am also aware that 100 days is a short time for a new administration to make its mark in terms of policy direction with respect to many key areas. While these facts apply, it is also true that, with respect to environmental security, time is of the essence.
The latter point is the most important and it appears that the seriousness of the situation has escaped the Holness administration. Most ministers, including the prime minister himself, have made submissions in the Budget and Sectoral Debates, as well as elsewhere across traditional and social media.
It is generally agreed that environmental management and security must never become a political football. While many are still divided as to the causes of climate change, there is increasing convergence as to the impact it has, especially in tropical island states like Jamaica.
The now-proven rising sea levels present a direct threat to the health of coral reefs. Mainly as the photosynthetic algae which live within the coral polyps become starved for light and can, therefore, not produce food to keep the system alive. This situation is compounded by the fact that run-off from the land includes increasing loads of sediment that make the water in coastal regions more turbid. Put simply, this is double jeopardy for the fragile ecosystems that coral reefs support.
In addition to rising sea levels is the phenomenon of rising sea temperatures. When the water in coastal zones become too warm, the corals expel the algae, thus causing the reef to lose colour and turn completely white. This is known as coral bleaching, which researchers at the Centre for Marine Sciences here in Jamaica will confirm has affected Jamaica along our own coastal zone. There is an additional risk which we also face - the physical damage of the reefs caused by dredging, coastal area construction or by wave action during storms and hurricanes.
Our reef systems around Jamaica are already heavily under pressure and, in some cases, totally endangered. But while other countries such as Belize and Australia are showing the resolve through government policy to mitigate these global effects within their local territories, the same is not immediately evident here in Jamaica.
What do we do?
It is not only incumbent but urgent as well that we begin a coordinated series of responses to face these challenges successfully. The first step is to acknowledge that despite years of credible research and data, successive governments have done measurably little to counteract the situation. We, therefore, need to accept that there is a problem and take the necessary decisions to solve the problems.
Without being unduly harsh on this or any other administration, we must also accept that Jamaica's national debt has constrained the relevant agencies from implementing the necessary public education programmes. Further, projects with fisherfolk or hillside farmers, as well as other actors within the ridge (land side) to reef (sea side) transect aimed to improve responsiveness and resilience, have been largely underfunded.
But we cannot throw up our hands in frustration because we may be unable to finance the responses from our capital budget in any given financial year. The administration should establish a National Climate Change Strategic Response. Among the key objectives would be to appoint the relevant persons from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade and the former Ministry of Land, Water, Environment and Climate Change to pursue sources of funding available internationally to finance on-the-ground mitigation responses.
At a previous time in our history when faced with the negative fallout from the sugar sector as the era of preferential treatment between Europe and its former colonies came to a close, then Foreign Affairs Minister P.J. Patterson became a key player in the Lome negotiations for successor agreements to militate against the economic fallout that would have surely devastated African, Caribbean and Pacific nations.
Similarly, the present threats faced by Jamaica because of environmental insecurity and the hazards of climate change require that the foreign affairs ministry immediately launch a series of negotiations to identify those sources of finances that will allow Jamaica to become more environmentally secure.
While it is unusual for someone to sit on the Opposition benches and direct government policy, I would implore the Government to at least agree with me that wishing the problem away will not achieve anything but further problems.
With eight weeks having gone in the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season, we are fortunate so far not to have had any major developments affecting the Jamaica or the region. Yet we have seen what isolated floods in eastern Jamaica, parts of Florida and elsewhere in the region have caused outside of a hurricane. We have also seen the viciousness of typhoons across the Pacific.
We have seen the vacillation with respect to coastline security projects in Negril. What we would not want to see is the impact on that beach or any other coastal region in Jamaica if we remain in a state of paralysis and not do anything meaningful with the available technology and information to protect our country, its people and our society and economy as we seek to become more environmentally secure.
The gravity of the situation demands new thinking and a renewed effort to not do what we have already tried in the past but that which the future requires. The combination of our intake from tourism, agriculture and mining confirm that we are primarily dependent on the environment for our economic survival. All of that potential earning and development is at risk in the present circumstance.
It is now time for us to change our approach to climate change. An environmentally secure society is also one that is better able to minimise the impact of ZIKV and other opportunistic and residual outbreaks. An environmentally secure economy centralises disaster mitigation and smarter agricultural policies at the centre of any strategy for national development.
Lost City of Atlantis details the story of a state swallowed up by the ocean because of the hubris of its leaders who thought themselves superior to the gods and immune to the impacts of forces of nature. Closer home, marine divers confirm the sleeping city streets of 1692 Port Royal that lay intact on the ocean floor.
We would rather that none of those fates visit the people of Jamaica in the modern era. It is within our collective love of our country and determination of a people to begin to change that outcome by working in a coordinated effort to make Jamaica more environmentally secure.
- Ian Hayles is MP for Western Hanover and spokesperson on water and climate change. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.