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A Question of Sink or Swim: Centering Environmental Sustainability for Caribbean Island Communities

Miguel is the Caribbean’s regional coordinator for World’s Youth Climate Justice. His piece unveils the underlying socio-economic issues that engender the apparent apathy of Caribbean folk victimised by climate change.

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Whenever people ask me why I care so much about climate change, I challenge them to think of a time in their life that they were outside of the climate. Alternatively, I ask them to think of a place where, whatever the climate would do, they would remain entirely unaffected. When they realise the ridiculousness of this mental exercise, they often laugh and shrug it off. The climate is ever-present; we all know it. But that begs the question: why do we all act like it isn’t?

The environment is generally seen as just one of three (or even four or five) pillars of sustainability. The well-known path to sustainability leads us, one by one, through environmental, social, economic, and sometimes also cultural and psychological sustainability. Importantly, all these pillars stand on level ground and are made of the same material. This, I believe, is the biggest and single-most catastrophic miscommunication in human history, based on an erroneous understanding of our place within the environment. Entrapped within compounded ignorance, we continue in the vein of our destructive norms as the world falls apart around us.

Perhaps the best illustration of our current condition exists in the form of islands. Island communities are some of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as the statistics suggest: the Caribbean is a hotspot of internal migration due to extreme weather events, and in the Pacific, whole island states may succumb to the waves in coming decades. Statistics, however, cannot truly convey the real impacts of climate change to individual islanders. After all, if the statistics are true, and so many islanders are suffering from the effects of climate change, why is it not the first thing on everyone’s mind? In the Caribbean, only two-thirds of people consider climate change to be a very serious issue; much less than in Mexico, Central America, and South America.

After all, if the statistics are true, and so many islanders are suffering from the effects of climate change, why is it not the first thing on everyone’s mind?

Even the families and individuals most severely affected by climate change may not give it much thought. After Hurricane Irma passed over the island of Saint Martin in September 2017, schools were closed for weeks. The economy came to a total standstill. What were people thinking about? They were thinking about their jobs, and whether they would still have them; they were thinking about food, and if it would keep coming; and importantly, they were thinking about their children, who were at risk of missing months of school. A gap in education can have detrimental consequences for children and adolescents.

In the La Guajira region on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, a years-long drought led to shocking rates of malnutrition in 2015. But, again, the drought itself was not the principal concern. Rather, how to cross the ever-more-stringent border with Venezuela to buy cheaper food and other necessities? Which family member would move to the city to look for a job and send remittances?

The fact that people on the frontline of the climate crisis aren’t thinking about climate change on a daily basis does not mean they are not educated or are not aware that the climate is changing. Rather, it exemplifies the way they are relating to their environment, which is the same way we all relate to our natural environment: through our societies and economies.

Society and the economy are the messengers that manage the relationship between humans and nature.

Society and the economy are the messengers that manage the relationship between humans and nature. When the natural environment changes, we perceive these changes in our daily lives through changes in our capacity to practice our culture, socialize with families and friends, and/or make a decent living. As such, the most widespread impacts of climate change are not new issues, but a worsening of socio-economic issues that already exist. Simply put, climate change does not add more worries to people’s lives; mostly, it intensifies the worries people already have. Coming back to the three pillars of sustainability, environmental sustainability is not simply a pillar, but rather, the ground itself on which all other pillars stand.

Simply put, climate change does not add more worries to people’s lives; mostly, it intensifies the worries people already have.

As a journalist, young islander and climate activist myself, I am sometimes dragged into conversations about the urgency and severity of climate change. How does it square up to poverty, gender inequality, and food insecurity? Moreover, where should our money, brainpower and solutions go first? Should we put poverty eradication and ending hunger aside for climate adaptation?

The question is so silly as to be almost ridiculous. It makes me wonder: in an impoverished community where families struggle to make ends meet and children are malnourished, what would climate adaptation look like? The principal aim of climate adaptation is to moderate or avoid harm due to a warming climate, but in a community like this one, what would “things getting worse” look like?

Climate justice, unlike climate adaptation, is not simply about avoiding harm. Rather, it is about transformational change. It is a bold and innovative framework that provides sustainable and resilient solutions to old and existing socio-economic problems. A friend recently told me climate justice is her compass. Indeed, climate justice can serve as a compass that will lead us to a better, more equitable, and more sustainable global society. But important here is the fact that it is the compass—not the goal in itself.

Nowhere is the need for climate justice as a compass more crucial than on small islands. While people may feel separated from the environment in big cities and can escape the worst effects of climate change in rich and bigger countries, these are not options when living on a small island. As such, the effects of climate change are especially stark and the need for a climate justice approach to sustainable development particularly crucial.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the World’s Youth for Climate Justice (WYCJ), a youth network that is approaching the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion on climate change, started in the Pacific. Today, the WYCJ encompasses not just the Pacific region, but the European and Caribbean regions too, and continues to grow.

An advisory opinion on climate change from the world’s highest court would clarify the obligations of states to protect the rights of current and future generations from the adverse effects of climate change. An ambitious advisory opinion could go even further, including: providing impetus and guidance for courts at all levels; integrating the nexus between climate law and human rights, and; encouraging cooperation and support in mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage.

What does this mean for locals on the ground? The protection of human rights is one of the early 21st century’s most noble goals, but when people lose their freedoms to a changing climate, this is not necessarily considered an infringement on their human rights. Again, this is based on the old view of the natural environment as being separate from the other aspects of our lives. But as Yeb Sano from the Philippines said at the UN Climate Change Conference of 2013, regarding the super typhoon Haiyan (widely considered to be intensified by climate change), “We must stop calling events like these natural disasters. [The disaster] is a result of inequity, and the poorest people of the world are at greatest risk because of their vulnerability and decades of maldevelopment, which I must assert is connected to the pursuit of so-called economic growth that dominates the world.”

The greatest promise of an advisory opinion, then, would be a move toward greater protections of human rights, including the right to water, housing and health, which are all at greater risk due to the climate crisis. The WYCJ started in 2019 with this in mind, when a group of students at the University of the South Pacific formed the Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC) and successfully convinced the government of Vanuatu to support their campaign. Very quickly, the determined youth leaders from the Pacific inspired youth from around the world to follow their path and start their own local, national and regional campaigns.

We believe that an advisory opinion from the ICJ can deliver a progressive interpretation of states’ obligations on human rights and climate change. It is our sincere hope that this will be one step to a future led by the compass of climate justice.


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