“To deny climate change is to deny a truth we have just lived” – The Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit, Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Dominica
These powerful words uttered by Prime Minister of Dominica, The Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit were perhaps the most memorable from the United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA) seventy-second session. It was against the tragic backdrop of the devastation inflicted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria on several Caribbean islands that successive Caribbean leaders made their addresses during the UNGA general debate, highlighting the urgency of the need to address climate change in a meaningful way.
There were many moving addresses, but the most impactful was the address by Mr Skerrit, whose country was severely battered by the Category 5 power of Hurricane Maria just days before. Reiterating that he was “coming from the front line of the war on climate change”, Mr. Skerrit reminded participants of the horror which Tropical Storm Erika had inflicted on the island back in 2015 and the tragedy currently unfolding due to Hurricane Maria where the confirmed death toll is 27 and several other persons remain missing.
In the space of a couple of hours, Dominica’s iconic mountains, once resplendent in coats of green and through which flowed clear rivers, had turned brown with mud and rubble. Some 95% of homes have reportedly lost their roofs in some places. Every one of the Nature Isle’s 70,000 inhabitants has been affected in some way.
Proclaiming that “Eden is broken”, he declared that Dominica was faced with “an international humanitarian emergency”. A fortnight before Maria hit Dominica, Barbuda, the smaller of the two main islands of the country of Antigua & Barbuda, was hit by Category 5 Hurricane Irma, leading to a complete evacuation of the entire island after the crisis. Hurricane Irma also did not spare Cuba or the island of St. Martin, split between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Republic of France.
But besides the human and infrastructural losses, the economic toll will be equally enduring for those countries affected. A recent report estimates that Hurricane Irma caused $45 billion in damage in the Caribbean, with at least $30 billion in Puerto Rico. With Maria, this toll will be expected to rise. A rapid damage and assessment had found that Tropical Storm Erika in 2015 had inflicted loss and damage on Dominica of US$483 million, equivalent to 90% of the island’s GDP. Hurricane Maria was much worse.
While climate change is not the cause of hurricanes, warmer waters in the Atlantic is believed by scientists to be the cause of stronger, more powerful hurricanes during this hurricane season. Hurricane Irma and Maria both rapidly developed into Category 5 hurricanes and the back to back pummeling of several Caribbean islands by two Category 5 hurricanes in such a short space of time is certainly not an everyday occurence, but one which may become a more frequent reality as global temperatures increase.
It is these realities which led Caribbean countries and other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to be at the forefront of climate change negotiations which eventually led to the historic Paris Agreement being signed in December, 2015. It is why the decision by US President Donald Trump to declare that the US, the world’s largest polluter, would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement was extremely unfortunate.
As Hurricane Harvey and Irma potently showed in the US states of Texas and Florida, wealthy nations like the US are not immune to the more deadly effects of climate change. However, Caribbean countries, like all SIDS, are poorly equipped, both geographically and economically, to confront these disasters. Their fragile economies are dependent on industries which are among the first economic victims of storm devastation, tourism being the clearest example.
Moreover, their generally high GDP per capita and “middle income” designation makes most concessionary loans and certain types of development aid beyond their reach due to outdated notions that GDP per capita is a good measure of wealth for countries. This point was raised in the address by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of Barbados, Senator the Honourable Maxine McClean. Barbados was spared the devastation of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria and has been among the forefront of relief efforts in Dominica.
As was eloquently put in a recent World Bank blog, hurricanes can seriously turn back the developmental clock. This is certainly the case with Dominica which was still in many ways recovering from Tropical Storm Erika and will face a much longer recovery following Hurricane Maria. It is also the case with the US territories of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands which are also facing tremendous human suffering after being pounded by both Irma and Maria. Puerto Rico’s economy was already fragile due to the huge debt crisis being faced and is now faced with many places without drinking water or electricity.
Platitudes and best endeavour promises do little to allay the reality that there is little time left to reverse the damage which has been done and reverse course towards more severe temperature increases. The Paris Agreement was an important step but there needs to be stronger commitment, ambition and meaningful action by all nations, especially those which are the most responsible for atmospheric pollution, to take steps to meet and go beyond the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets they set for themselves.
There also needs to be greater support for SIDS which bear a disproportionate brunt of the consequences. The issue of climate finance was raised by Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua & Barbuda, who mentioned debt swaps as a possible option, and the need for greater finance for building resilience, as well as reminded participants of the economic vulnerability of countries which were faced with high debt, large trade deficits and small, undeveloped financial markets.
As Prime Minister of Dominica, Mr. Skerrit rightly stated, “we need action and we need it now”.
Mr. Skerrit’s full speech may be viewed here.
The CTLD Blog extends our heartfelt sympathy to all our Caribbean brothers and sisters affected by the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma and Maria.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.