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Small island states: sailing into troubled waters

Published:Thursday | December 3, 2015 | 12:00 AMOliver-Leighton Barrett, Contributor

The cloud of anxiety that enveloped Paris in the aftermath of the terror attacks two weeks ago has lifted slightly, creating room for cautious hope as the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change got under way last week.

The two-week summit represents an opportunity for both large and small states to work together to finalise an agreement that everyone hopes will put the brakes on global temperature rise. Below are a few challenges and opportunity considerations that should have been at the forefront of Caribbean negotiators' minds as they made their case for the kind of robust action needed to prevent

deepening environmental-related turmoil across the Caribbean basin.


Impacts already locked in

Cuba, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and the isles of the Lesser Antilles (to include Trinidad and Tobago) are states that have the most to lose if non-traditional environmental patterns like prolonged droughts persist.

A 2014 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report titled UNEP Foresight Process for SIDS explained that the impacts of environmental vulnerability will harm small islands' "tourism, fisheries, agriculture, fresh water, human health, and infrastructure". The report also explained that small islands' relatively small land mass; urbanisation, economic activities concentrated along coastlines; not to mention a dependence on coastal ecosystems for economic security, further deepen their vulnerability.

Caribbean nations already experiencing resource stresses and situated within the bullseye zone of episodic severe weather events like hurricanes simply don't have extra resilience to bounce back from jump-ball meteorological events like Typhoon Haiyan, which decimated parts of the Philippines in 2013. We should anticipate that the kind of environmental variability that can disrupt small island developmental processes will remain a constant for years to come, even if the tamest regional forecasts play out.



Lamentably, climate-change impacts will jeopardise livelihoods at best, and in worst-case scenarios lead to enough social upset to cause internal migration (think crop failures) and may even precipitate political reordering. Caribbean heads of state and negotiators need only chat with their Brazilian counterparts at the summit to learn about the turmoil that the world's sixth-largest economy is experiencing because of an epic drought now in its second year.

The once-in-a-lifetime drought has left Brazil's capital, Sao Paulo (home to 20 million people), extremely water-stressed and has contributed to the plunging popularity ratings of once superstar politician President Dilma Rousseff. But all of this is the scary side of the climate-change coin. There is a far rosier outcome for the Caribbean if action is accelerated and intensified in coming years.


The Flip Side

On the opportunity side, there is a window for Caribbean states to leverage the goodwill and economic largesse of a

serious global movement to start to mainstream climate-change resiliency. UNs' Green Climate Fund (US$10.2 billion pledged to date) has set aside a full 50 per cent of its funding for SIDS and Least Developed Countries so they can start to invest in mitigation and adaptation initiatives. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has repeatedly demonstrated America's commitment to Caribbean climate resiliency by offering a variety of funding support in recent years to the region. But in order for real climate resiliency to become more than mere talk across the basin, 'country ownership' will have to undergird all efforts.

The previously cited UNEP report suggests that comprehensive sustainable development should be the paradigm that spurs new thinking on adaptation and mitigation strategies. Local expertise and traditional skills, combined with partnerships with regional and international institutions, can be brought to bear to rewire economies for a more carbon-free, environmentally sustainable and resilient future.

A statement by St Kitts-Nevis Prime Minister Timothy Harris is evidence of turning-point type thinking when he shared with a COP21 audience earlier this week: "We are building strategic partnerships with countries and the private sector to develop geothermal, solar and wind energy solutions. Currently, we have solar farms operating on both St Kitts and Nevis and are also exploring the potential geothermal capacity on the islands." These lines of thought and initiatives are precisely the kind needed to build Caribbean states' developmental stability and resiliency.

Hopefully, the agreed-upon emission curbs and resource commitments set aside for small states at COP21 will be new wind into the sails of Caribbean states as they collectively navigate through troubled waters. However, it appears that Caribbean states are already rising to the challenge. With a lot of external help and good governance, they should be able to individually and collectively rise to the challenge of the slow-moving emergency.

We should keep our fingers crossed.

- Lieutenant Commander Oliver-Leighton Barrett, US Navy (retired), is owner-manager of Miami-based Janus Advisory Inc, an environmental and climate-change advisory services company. Email feedback to and