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Impending Doom?

February 15 2016 - by Dr. David Lee, CLP's Environment Specialist

"We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.  In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.  This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action."

-Martin Luther King Jr


Martin Luther King Jr. may not have been in Paris last December but certainly his sentiment expressed above was certainly prevalent. This need for action contributed in great part in an unprecedented acceptance of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change  being adopted by 193 countries. Perhaps, nothing so concentrates the mind like impending doom.

CARICOM was ready for Paris. David Jessop, a consultant to the Caribbean Council, reported in his article that a task force had been at work for two years and that the region had a well-prepared position, a shortlist of critical issues, and simple but memorable branding (1.5 to stay alive).  In addition to a delegation led by St Lucia's Minister of Sustainable Development, Dr. James Fletcher, and the CARICOM Secretary General Ambassador Irwin LaRoque, seven Caribbean Heads of Government travelled to Paris to express, at the opening, the region's concerns, and to mobilise third-party support among the huge numbers of NGOs, business interests, environmentalists and others present in Paris.

By all accounts it was an outstanding example of where, in the pursuit of a common cause that touches everyone in the Region, the regional institution (CARICOM) can add real value and be an organization of which we are proud.  The work of CARICOM and all the countries in the Region and partners in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) did manage to effect changes in the Paris Agreement.

Some highlights of the Paris Agreement are:

  • In outline, the 31-page text agreed by 193 nations proposes that a balance between greenhouse gas emissions and the sinks for ameliorating them is achieved in the second half of this century. 
  • It emphasizes the need to hold the increase in the global average temperature well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, proposes 'pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C’, and that a peak in global greenhouse gas emissions be achieved as soon as possible. It accepts an asymmetrical approach enabling all developing countries - including large industrialized carbon emitters like China, India and Brazil - to have more time to adapt. 
  • It agrees a US$100 billion annual minimum up to 2030 to enable support for mitigation and adaptation in developing nations, but does not accept there is any basis for compensation for loss and damage by carbon emitters. It also does not set a time scale for reaching greenhouse gas emission neutrality, or say anything about the shipping or aviation industries.

Does the Agreement go far enough for the Caribbean?  Some experts believe that the Paris Agreement is too aspirational and not prescriptive enough to make a difference.  Indeed, is it enforceable?  This against the background of an increased rate of climate change. The Caribbean is already recoding beach losses attributable to climate change, Hurricane Alex being the first hurricane of 2016 – a very rare January Hurricane, and the north pole experiencing above freezing temperatures reported by the Washington Post, 50 degrees above the average recorded at the end of the year. 

Permanently frozen ground, permafrost, in Canada has been thought of as a static environment. Recently it was reported to have experienced seasonal melts. Fifty per cent of the Caribbean’s population and the majority of the region's productive enterprise and infrastructure lie within 1.2 miles of the sea. Its low-lying nature, its fragile ecosystems, and extreme weather events demonstrate that it is a prime candidate to benefit from the Paris Agreement.

So, what next?

For the Caribbean and other low-lying small nations, which sea level change and global warming are quite literally existential issues, what is now at stake is whether what has been agreed is deliverable. What does the text mean in practical terms? How will the Region and AOSIS ensure that the many commitments made are delivered within the agreed time frame?

CARICOM must now follow through.  Together with the Caribbean States and the other AOSIS States CARICOM needs to determine how at the United Nations and in other fora it is going to attempt to hold the world accountable to the Paris Agreement, and obtain and successfully apply some of the money that will be available for both adaptation and mitigation.   CARICOM and the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre will continue to have a critical role in coordinating the regional effort.  It will also be up to Caribbean Governments to maintain the political momentum, demonstrate a unity of purpose, and to be determined to pay attention to the Caribbean's implementation deficit.

This will not just be a test of the Caribbean's staying power and the willingness of its governments to fund and support a continuing focus, but will also require that the Region hold to account those countries that it supported during the negotiations. They will need to prove, when it comes to the Caribbean, that their expressed concerns reflected more than just a need to obtain a satisfactory agreement. It is a position that will have to be deployed as much with China and Brazil as with the US and Europe.

Are we up to the task?

What are you going to do to advance this agenda?

Where are your spheres of control and influence?

The time is now!