Climate change is an existential threat for us in the islands

By Dr. Keith C. Mitchell

CNN — Grenada and other Small Island Developing States are on the front line in the war against climate change. Although hurricanes are no stranger to the Caribbean, the overwhelming scientific evidence of how extreme weather conditions are worsening due to global warming shows that we need to take the signals that our Earth is sending us seriously.

That evidence can be found in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 special report on the effects of global warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius — and in the devastation left by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the region, in the form of mangled towns, villages, homes and critical infrastructure, wrecked lives, devastated crops and ecosystems, damaged economies and financial markets.

As leaders of Small Island Developing States see the rising tides and feel the temperature changes, we will not play a waiting game, hoping major economies will come to our rescue.

During this year’s UN Climate Summit in September, leaders from the Caribbean will be sure to present goals and ideas of how to tackle this crisis. The human cost across the region is too severe and life-changing not to.

Who can forget Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit’s live updates as Hurricane Maria pounded his home in 2017? “My roof is gone. I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding,” he posted on Facebook.

Hurricane Maria is regarded as one of the worst natural disasters to hit our neighboring islands of the Caribbean.

According to a 2018 Swiss Re report, $92 billion — nearly half of 2017’s total insured cost — was caused by hurricane damage in the US and the Caribbean. And a 2018 UN report detailing the impact of Irma and Maria showed the ways in which islands suffered after the storms’ fury.

Among many things, children didn’t have schools to go back to and dialysis patients had their treatment disrupted. Affected islands struggled for weeks without electricity and running water, increasing the likelihood for disease.

In the US Virgin Islands, for example, it took nearly four months for power to be restored to 92% of islands’ population.

And while damages to the Caribbean’s housing and infrastructure sectors remained the highest, many sources of our livelihood — crops, trees and livestock — were devastated. We see the plight of our farmers with respect to changes in rainfall patterns – timing, duration and intensity.

We know the bountiful shoals of fish that have historically fed us are being decimated by warming waters and acidifying oceans. We see our disappearing coastal landscapes and ecosystems. We are experiencing the devastating economic and social impacts.

Where the international community once talked of urgency, let us now be clear: This is an emergency. So, Caribbean leaders will lead. We will lead on the politics, economics and impacts of climate change, and take our concerns into the halls of power, be that in New York, Washington, London, Brussels, Berlin, Moscow, Delhi or Beijing.

We will lead on setting targets that are in line with a safer planet: in line with the IPCC’s 1.5 degree Celsius report published last year and the recently published Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

We will lead on creating the frameworks that can incentivise clean transport on our islands, power that is generated from the sun, wind, waves and ecosystems. We will lead in building resilient cities, by educating our people how to ensure their houses can cope with stronger storms, and how to live more sustainable lifestyles.

Jamaica and Barbados have already signaled increased ambition, by increasing their energy target from 30% to 50% of emission reduction, and by committing to be a 100% green and carbon neutral island by 2030, respectively.

We, in Grenada, with the support of partners like the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) Partnership (a way for nations to show their commitment to the Paris Agreement), are putting in place concrete plans to not only implement our NDCs but identify ways to enhance it further.

We feel that the hand of history is on our shoulders. Next year is the year when the Paris Agreement faces its first true test, a year for all countries to step up and deliver very ambitious climate action — 2020 is also a pivotal year to deliver on the “Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020,” which set the “global framework for priority actions on biodiversity,” and the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” a “framework of universal and indivisible goals and targets to address a range of global societal challenges” signed by all 193 member states of the UN.
September will be the time for governments to come with a strategy to the UN Climate Summit. This strategy must include a way to peak global emissions by 2020, to avoid overshoot of the 1.5 degree Celsius target, to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 and to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Our message to our fellow leaders is simple: come to New York with a plan to raise your target. We already have too much hot air — that’s the problem.

For us in the islands, climate change is indeed an existential threat. Now is a time for cool heads, wise heads, a time to build a better future for this generation and generations to come. There is no other way.

(Dr. Keith Mitchell is the current Prime Minister of Grenada following election victories in 1995, 1999, 2003, 2013 and 2018)

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