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Climate refugees in the Caribbean?

Published: 
Thursday, September 14, 2017
Storm damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on Necker Island, the private island paradise of billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, in the British Virgin Islands.

Last week, I gave a presentation in London about small states and climate change. It’s an issue that is near and dear to my heart. Titled Assistance for Small States in International Environmental Negotiations, I presented it at the Environment and Small States Conference, held by the Centre for Small States at Queen Mary University.

The conference was on Tuesday, and Irma hit Barbuda the next day, on Wednesday. While I was speaking about the effects of climate change on small states, of extreme weather events threatening the lives and livelihoods of those on small islands like ours in particular, Irma was barrelling towards the Caribbean islands with the force of a bowling ball heading towards a raisin. It was one of the strongest Atlantic storms on record, with winds close to 200 mph. A St Maarten official said on Wednesday night that “95 per cent of the island is destroyed.” Barbuda was similarly devastated.

We know the effects of climate change first hand here in the Caribbean, whether we acknowledge them or not. The intensity of Irma was due to climate change. Yes, climate change cannot magically create a hurricane. Hurricanes have always been a reliable feature of life in the Caribbean. But what climate change can do is ramp up their power and as a result, increase their capacity for destruction.

It is worrying that in this day and age that we still have to hold up proof and argue that climate change is real. But sadly, it is necessary. A senior member of the United Kingdom’s Conservative government said it did not show humanity to discuss climate change after a set of deadly hurricanes ripped through the Atlantic. Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, said it was insensitive to discuss climate change in the midst of deadly storms. In fact, US President Trump is such a climate change sceptic that he decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

One might ask, in this day and age of science and discovery, why is this happening? The crux of the matter is that the wealthy countries of the world don’t want a solution. Because that would impact their bottom line.

And even we in Trinidad, and less so perhaps in Tobago with the memories of Hurricanes Ivan and Flora, watch the devastation that Irma has wreaked upon the rest of the Caribbean with concern, but also with a touch of distance and detachment. We are steeped in sympathy and horror, but there is always that buffer that we have — that we-are-below-the-hurricane-belt notion that “God is ah Trini”.

There is no real understanding that, “There, but for the grace of God, goes I”, as most Antiguans must feel having escaped by the skin of their teeth from the worst horrors of the storm. Or Jamaica, still reeling from PTSD flashbacks of Ivan and Gilbert.

This is our worst enemy in Trinidad—the conviction that we cannot be touched hurricane-wise. But the reality is that we are not ready for a hurricane. And we know this.

We know this every time it floods in downtown Port-of-Spain from the slightest bit of rain. We know this when parts of Central are knee deep in water during the rainy season. We know this when the rivers are high from the lack of foresight to dredge the river beds during the dry season. Any evacuation plan is ludicrous when a traffic commute in and out of the city capital at rush hour is several hours long and bumper to bumper. We are not ready. We know this. But God is ah Trini, oui.

This is the kind of hubris that will be our downfall.

We know that climate change is real. But do we realise that it affects us in our daily life? Do we realise that it can shatter our lives? Those 1,800 people who are evacuated from Barbuda—these may indeed be some the Caribbean’s first climate refugees.

Climate refugees can be considered people who have had to flee their homes due to environmental factors that can be partially attributed to climate change, such as drought, extreme weather conditions and natural disasters. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates around 20 million people a year are forced to do so.

They will not be the first climate refugees in the world. In 2007, CNN reported that the Carteret Islanders were the first island community in the world to undergo an organised relocation, in response to rising sea levels. But there are many more unreported. And the numbers will increase.

Discussion of climate refugees and migration in UN climate negotiations has been slow in coming. Perhaps because it is only a tenuous grasp that we have upon a fluid and ever-changing phenomenon. What are their rights? What are they to be called? Are they actually ‘refugees’ with all the baggage included in that term? What international framework exists to protect them? What are the problems that face their lifestyle, their livelihood, their culture, their opportunity when they are forced out of their home?

But this is the discussion that we as small islands need to have now. Because this is our possible future. Because this is increasingly becoming inevitable. Because there but for the grace of God.

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Caroline Mair is an Attorney-at-Law at Mair and Company in Port-of-Spain. She has previously worked in international environmental law think tanks in London, advising developing countries at United Nations climate change negotiation