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Opening Address by the Secretary-General of CARICOM Dr Carla N. Barnett at the Opening Ceremony of the “2022 Global Environmental Justice Conference” (Yale School of the Environment) New Haven, CT, USA, 13 October 2022

Focus: Intersection of equitable climate action and sustainable development.

Theme: Re-imagining Our Collective Future: Advancing Climate Justice, Food Security and Energy Transition in an Age of Uncertainty

  • Dr. Ingrid C. “Indy” Burke, Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean, Yale School of the Environment;
  • Dr. Graciela Chichilnisky, Professor of Economics and Mathematical Statistics, Columbia University and co-founder, Global Thermostat; 
  • Other Members of Staff and Students of the Yale School of the Environment;
  • Representatives of the United States Agency for International Development;
  • Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am pleased for the opportunity to join you today at your Fourth Annual Global Environmental Justice Conference.

Your theme “Re-Imagining Our Collective Future: Advancing Climate Justice, Food Security and Energy Transition in an Age of Uncertainty” resonates with the core priority objectives of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). 

It is almost universally acknowledged that climate change is an existential threat to all of humanity. However, it is those of us in the developing world who are on the frontline, feeling the already devastating consequences of climate change, and whose development prospects are increasingly compromised by the intensification of the climate crises that we did not cause and a climate action agenda that does not fully address our critical concerns.

The science is conclusive. The United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has urged the immediate adoption of strengthened policies between 2020 and 2025 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade relative to pre-industrial levels.  The IPCC has also confirmed that current emissions reduction pledges under the Paris Agreement do not track to a 1.5 degrees pathway. There is a high probability that global warming will exceed the agreed target during the first half of the twenty-first century, indeed during the decade of 2030s.  There is, therefore, a gap between what is needed for our survival and what exists.

The climate crisis is now the greatest collective challenge that modern humanity has confronted. However, despite lofty aspirations, we are lagging in the achievement of measures to surmount it. We are already seeing the impact of this ambition deficit, and implementation deficiency from more frequent extreme weather events to rapidly rising sea levels that devastate ecosystems and profoundly disrupt the very existence and livelihoods of those impacted. 

Particularly concerning, as well, is the recognition that climate change disproportionately affects developing versus developed countries across the world, and within countries, disproportionately impacts marginalized and underserved communities .  This inequity must be acknowledged and addressed in the mitigation and adaptation strategies aimed at addressing the impact of climate change, and particularly, the realization of the 1.5 degree temperature target.

Small Island and Low-lying Coastal Developing States (SIDS), which includes all Members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), are recognized by the international community as belonging to the group of countries in special situations because of their unique vulnerabilities. Within the context of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), SIDS have advocated since the early 1990’s for special attention to be paid to their particular circumstances. Although SIDS are responsible for less than 1% of the global emissions that drive climate change, they are amongst the most vulnerable to climate impacts due to a range of systemic geographic and economic issues which heighten their vulnerability.

The impacts of climate change on the Caribbean have been well-documented and researched, including in reports of the IPCC. These reports have highlighted the risks to vulnerable ecosystems, physical infrastructure, productive sectors, and key foreign exchange earning sectors such as tourism and agriculture. These risks pose ongoing severe threats to the sustainable development potential of our Region.

Indeed, the countries of the Caribbean are already confronting the cost of climate impacts resulting in economic damage estimated in multiples of annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  For example, five years ago, one Member State – Dominica endured damage estimated at 220% of GDP from Hurricane Maria, just two years after a 90% of GDP loss from Tropical Storm Erika.

Further, rising sea levels,drought and salination of our aquifers, are compromising access to water for household consumption and undermining agricultural productivity.  We also see the impacts of climate change on public infrastructure, housing, and the resultant significant increase in the replacement cost of roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and homes to meet the stronger standards and codes that are now required.

Together with the worsening climate crises, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have amplified the debilitating consequences of the structural rigidities and vulnerabilities, resulting in greater economic contraction, increasing inflation levels, fiscal and current account imbalances, and growing public debt in CARICOM States.  The very survival of our nation states is dependent on our capacity to undertake initiatives to build economic and climate resilience. It is on that premise that Dominica intends to become the world’s first climate resilient country.

However, the economic and financial fragilities along with the very fundamental threats of food insecurity, energy insecurity, and the inadequacies of our health systems and connectivity infrastructure are real everyday scenarios confronting policymakers in the Caribbean Community.

I therefore wish to commend the organisers of this Conference for an Agenda which elevates many of the issues confronting legislators, policymakers, and civil society in our Region for discourse among a lineup of well-qualified speakers over the next few days. 

I look forward to the outcomes of your discussions, as we continue with the preparations for COP27 where we intend to advocate for the safeguarding of SIDS’ interests and the building of accountability for the promises made under the Glasgow Climate Pact.  As United Nations Secretary-General Gutteres has acknowledged, the issues before COP 27 are about “climate justice, international solidarity and trust.”[1]

CARICOM Member States have made significant strides to address the climate crisis by developing policy, institutional and legislative support for climate action through regional strategies, national climate policies, outlining steps to adapt and build national resilience through National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), and proposing ambitious targets for adaptation and mitigation in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).  However, as ambitious as these steps may be, the truth is that even if we do all and everything that we can do, we will not be able to achieve significant moderation of climate change or effectively address the peculiar factors that are at the root of the climate crisis in our countries and SIDS, in general, because we are not the source of climate change.

The systemic global and national inequities confronting small states must be addressed in order to achieve climate justice.  Of course, inequities also prevail within, and across communities and regions in advanced countries. The disproportionate consequences and response to recent climate events in Florida and Puerto Rico are cases in point. 

But for SIDS and CARICOM States, in particular, these inequities are primarily the legacy of their evolution as colonial territories with externally driven and dependent production structures; extreme reliance on imported goods which directly affects food and nutrition security; fragile fiscal and monetary systems resulting in reliance on external capital and high levels of debt to fund liquidity shortfalls; the concentration of people and assets along the coastal areas, as well as dependence on sectors that are tied to environmental assets under threat such as beaches, reefs and rainforests. 

Moreover, different communities within SIDS experience the impacts of climate change differently. For example, farmers and fishers, as well as other seasonal workers such as those in the tourism industry whose livelihoods are impacted seasonally by extreme weather events; migrant communities, the elderly and differently abled who do not have the flexibility of resources or able hands to both prepare for and recover from storms; indigenous and rural communities whose connectivity with the rest of the country, as well as traditional livelihood and cultural practices are considerably impacted through disruptions in the physical infrastructure and the natural ecosystem. 

These parts of our society are often least-equipped to respond to the impacts of climate change, but are often those that are most impacted by climate events. The design of our resilience strategies at all levels must therefore ensure that interventions do not worsen existing inequities, but recognize and rectify these injustices.

For CARICOM States and SIDS, in general, the key to addressing such inequities is to elevate loss and damage as a key climate justice issue that warrants the endorsement of developed countries as well.  Our ongoing advocacy, within the context of the UNFCCC, represents loss and damage as the negative impacts of climate change to which we either cannot adapt or have not adapted, because such adaptation requires access to funding – funding which should be provided, in the interest of justice, by developed countries who are responsible for the destructive impacts we now face.

It is of concern for us that loss and damage has lagged far behind progress on mitigation and adaptation within the UNFCCC. To date, loss and damage has no specific funding stream, is not a recurring agenda item for negotiations and has been found, through subsequent reviews, to be an area where the UNFCCC has much work to do. The question about who pays for loss and damage, or even that a loss and damage financing facility is necessary remains a burning issue. SIDS are, therefore, seeking to mitigate, adapt and respond to loss and damage in a less than propitious environment.

Denmark’s recent acknowledgement of loss and damage as consequences of the climate crisis, and the offer of compensation in the amount of 100 million Danish Crowns to developing countries damaged by climate change is to be commended.  It is imperative for the survival of vulnerable countries that others follow Denmark’s lead.

Our small and highly vulnerable states are struggling to adapt in the face of what seems likely, without the immediate action needed, as an early overshoot of the 1.5 degree temperature target, the building of our resilience becomes even more critical.

As we continue to adapt, to shore up and even transform our vulnerable economies, there is a need to improve public service delivery, create new and greener jobs, provide more resilient public transportation systems, strengthen disaster preparedness, and increase investments in water and sanitation, public health, agriculture, renewable energy, housing, education and environmental protection. All of these are fundamental to SIDS’ sustainable development.

But, perhaps the biggest challenge SIDS face is equitable and effective access to affordable funding to make mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage strategies central and fundamental to long term sustainable development plans and programs.  It is a major representation of climate injustice for SIDS across the globe.  Indeed, the financing of disaster recovery has become a major drain on the public purse and the primary contributor to the huge debt burden carried by our Member States.  As I explained to another audience recently, “…the vicious cycle is one in which climate crises causes regular devastation, necessitating regular rebuilding, which requires funding that could only be acquired through borrowing at high rates because many CARICOM Member States do not qualify for concessional funding.  This is due to a simple arithmetical calculation used by the multilateral institutions – GNI per capita – which does not take vulnerability into account.”

It also does not take into accountthe recovery duration period, during which our small states are often dependent on the largesse of development partners to jumpstart and even continue the recovery effort. This is in circumstances where prior indebtedness forestalls further borrowing and/or poor credit ratings to make the cost of borrowing prohibitive

The Caribbean Community along with other SIDS remain at the forefront of the call for a just metric which takes account of our vulnerabilities and susceptibilities, in order to broaden access to affordable funding.

The IPCC, in its recent report, is encouraging countries to ramp up the implementation of their climate mitigation strategies since the economic benefits increase, and conversely adaptation costs decrease with the stringency of mitigation actions. But this is advice that is better given to the larger countries since, as the IPCC has advised, the mitigation potential of SIDS relative to their contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions is limited.

The United Nations stated in a recent report on Accessing Climate Finance that SIDS “are being disproportionately and increasingly impacted by the impacts of climate change while their special circumstances make them extremely vulnerable to other external shocks, including the COVID-19 pandemic. SIDS urgently need access to external financial support and capacity to aid their pandemic recovery efforts and to build resilience between the social, economic, and natural systems on which they depend. However, the current climate and development finance architecture is exceedingly complex and unequipped to operate efficiently, fairly, and at the speed and scale needed to meet SIDS needs.” 

Very few developed countries have been meeting their pledge of 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) as Official Development Assistance (ODA) to developing countries. Neither have they provided much towards their commitment to provide US$100 billion in new contributions to climate finance.  Further, it appears that the contributions that are being identified as climate finance have been re-allocated from existing ODA budgets, and therefore, there has been little additionality. 

At the multilateral level, under the current rules for access, there is simply not sufficient affordable development and climate finance available to countries classified as middle or high income.  Moreover, access to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) involves a lengthy preparatory and negotiation process that is not aligned with the fact that recovery from climate events require immediate outlays of financial resources.

Our hopes of additionality from the recently established IMF Resilience and Sustainability Trust Fund have been dashed, since the eligibility criteria for access exclude many highly climate vulnerable developing countries that are classified as middle and high income by GDP per capita. In particular, the requirement for an active IMF programme is political anathema for many SIDS in CARICOM, which have fought to pursue homegrown recovery programmes without the burden of IMF prescriptions to reduce public expenditures at exactly the time when climate change is forcing a more than proportionate increase in public expenditure on mitigation and adaptation.

As one CARICOM Finance Minister recently argued (and I am paraphrasing here) – if we are agreed that the climate challenges are exogenously-induced and therefore beyond our control, the solution cannot be fixable by domestic policy reforms.

I am pleased that your first substantive conversation during this Conference will be on Finance for Climate Justice.  Access to affordable climate finance and its utilization to ameliorate climate injustice is the single most essential, if not the over-riding condition for climate justice in the Caribbean and among SIDS, in general. I am confident that my Caribbean colleagues participating in this Conference will cast the spotlight on the intricacies and challenges of this overwhelmingly binding constraint on our potential to achieve economic and climate resilience, as well as sustainable development.

I, therefore, wish you all a productive and enlightening discourse during a very timely Conference whose outcome could elevate the debate on climate justice, and the need for an appropriate funding stream for loss and damage. 

I thank you.

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