Walking the Walk on Climate Change

As Hurricane Maria approaches Saint Lucia as a Category 3 storm, I have to reflect on some of the statements I have read on the impact of Climate Change on our tropical weather systems.

There is no doubt that the warming of our climate, which is currently a little over 1 degree Celsius over pre-Industrial levels, is increasing sea surface temperatures, which in turn is making Atlantic hurricanes stronger and causing them to retain more moisture, which in turn increases the precipitation that accompanies these storms. So, while Climate Change is not causing the hurricanes, it is certainly making them stronger and potentially more devastating. Attribution science is growing and becoming more precise and this is allowing the scientific community to determine, with a greater level of precision, the extent of loss and damage from an extreme weather event that may be directly related to climate change. Increasingly, this will be a matter for litigation in courts around the globe. The issue of liability and compensation from the loss and damage caused by climate change was one of the most contentious issues in the negotiations leading to the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015. For three years, I found myself in the middle of these discussions and negotiations.

However, as tempting as it is to write about the role Saint Lucia played in these negotiations and how a small group of island nations was able to influence the final text of the Paris Agreement in so profound a manner, my focus today is on the impacts from extreme weather events that are not caused by Climate Change but are worsened by our own actions.

It is now fashionable and opportune for many to now speak of the significant role that climate change is playing in our national development and the importance of the developed countries meeting their financial obligations and making climate finance available to climate-vulnerable nations like ours. However, we have to demonstrate our commitment to the cause of protecting our people from the impacts of extreme weather events and making our economy and our country more resilient to climate change, if we want to be taken seriously by the international community.

For example, we cannot continue to approve and allow major infrastructure investments in close proximity to our coasts, particularly when these investments come in the form of major hotels and high rise condominiums that will house thousands of people, either in residence or employment. Almost every new major investment that has been either approved or proposed for Saint Lucia in the recent past is located in an area that will be directly impacted, negatively, in the short term by storm surges from stronger hurricanes and storms, or long-term by slow onset events like sea level rise. Why must every hotel be located directly on the beach? Surely Copacabana and Ipanema beaches in Rio have shown us that another approach can be just as successful.

Then there is the issue of land use. We have to look no further than the massive siltation in our coastal waters after heavy rainfall events to see the impact that deforestation and ill-advised land use practices in the interior are having on our marine ecosystems. If we continue to operate without a sensible Land Use Plan, we will experience more deadly and costly landslides, further degradation of critical watersheds, loss of economically valuable top soil, and death of coral reefs and near-shore fisheries.

Next we have the question of flood early warning systems. These provide us with data to predict where the impacts of rainfall and storms will be greatest, a mechanism to alert and evacuate those who are most at risk, and a system to evaluate the economic value of the damage and losses caused by extreme weather events. The Government of Saint Lucia had successfully negotiated a 2.5 Million Euro grant project with the Italian Government for a state-of-the-art Flood Early Warning System that would have done all of the above and more. Sadly, this project was not continued after June 2016.

Finally, we have to look at our country's obligations under the Paris Agreement, which we proudly joined as one of the first countries to both sign and ratify, when the Treaty was opened for signature at UN Headquarters on 22 April, 2016. In our Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which our country submitted on 17 November 2015 to the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Saint Lucia committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 16% by the year 2025, and 23% by the year 2030. However, these calculations were based on (i) the commissioning of the 12 MW wind farm by the end of 2017, (ii) the establishment of the first phase of geothermal energy generation, (iii) the conversion of 20,000-plus high-pressure sodium street lights to LED lights by 2018, and (iv) the encouragement of distributed generation from rooftop solar photovoltaic panels on residences and business houses. With the exception of the geothermal exploration, all of the conditions precedent on which Saint Lucia's NDC was based have been discontinued post June-2016. Therefore, it is difficult for our country to speak with any level of authority and conviction, or even sincerity, on climate change issues when we have failed to walk the walk for the last fourteen months.

There is much that we expect the international community to do to help climate-vulnerable countries like ours become more resilient and withstand the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. However, we also must show our seriousness about this life and death problem by taking the necessary steps to increase our resilience and not back-pedalling on important initiatives that are already in train.

Let us hope that once again, we are spared from any serious damage or threat to lives and livelihoods from Hurricane Maria and let us also hope that our Caribbean neighbours are not affected.

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