In a chilling display of primeval power and fury, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria trampled the Caribbean islands earlier this month leaving little more than destruction and desolation in their wake. With several weeks still left to go, September marked the opening salvo of a ferocious 2017 Atlantic hurricane season—a campaign waged by Mother Nature against some of the most vulnerable nations on the planet.
Hurricane Irma was one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. Having achieved sustained windspeeds above 180 mph for more than two and a half days, Irma set the record for the most intense storm in Atlantic history—stripping communities of virtually all basic infrastructure and plummeting hundreds of thousands into darkness. Hurricane Maria arrived just a few days later only to plunge the Caribbean deeper into despair. Over 50 casualties have been recorded thus far with the figure expected to rise in the coming days. For many, paradise has been lost . . . in a little less than 12 days.
This year severe weather patterns transformed the idyllic Caribbean into a theatre of war, with defenseless countries like Barbuda and Dominica caught in a crossfire between an environment in flux and a society fueled by the gluttonous accumulation of as many finite resources as humanly possible.
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit’s remarks were especially felicitous; his message palpable as if he were reading an infantryman’s account of war in the trenches: “We have been responsible members of the international community. We did not start this war on nature. But it has come to us. We are the victims on the frontlines. We are shouldering the consequences of the actions of others. To deny climate change is to deny a truth we have just lived.”
The devastation sustained by Dominica and Barbuda has been especially calamitous. Due to their exorbitant levels of public debt, low levels of disaster resilience, and the simple fact that they aren’t colonies of wealthy metropoles like France and the United Kingdom—unlike the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, St. Martin, and Puerto Rico—recovery for them will be a herculean effort. Official reports have described Barbuda as desolate and completely devoid of life. According to Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda: “Barbuda is only 62 square miles large. Hurricane Irma was a category 5 hurricane that was 375 miles wide with gale-force winds of 220 mph. 95% of the island was destroyed or severely damaged. We did not stand a chance”.
Despite these tales of catastrophic disaster, the leaders of the Caribbean sought to use the momentary platform of last week’s U.N. assembly to champion their collective call-to-action: that leaders of the world must acknowledge climate change!
Addressing a half-empty auditorium, Browne described what he sees as the gross injustice Caribbean countries now face: “The Caribbean contributes less than 0.001% of global emissions. We are the least of the polluters, but we are the majority of the casualties.” As if speaking directly to U.S. President Donald Trump (who explicitly omitted any mention of the climate during his address the prior week), he elaborated: “Whatever position on climate change a nation takes, the evidence of global warming is now irrefutably stronger. Two category 5 hurricanes within 12 days that unrelentingly pounded so many countries can no longer be dismissed as vagaries of the weather. Hurricanes are stronger and bigger because they are absorbing moisture from increasingly warmer seas caused by global warming, which is a man-made phenomenon that is attributable to those nations who consume 80% or more of the world’s energy.”
The leader of Saint Lucia and also Chairman of the OECS, Prime Minister Allen Chastanet drove home his colleague’s sentiments like a couturier threading his needle. Unlike many of its neighbors, Saint Lucia narrowly escaped the fury of Irma and Maria, as both storms edged north away from the island in the eleventh hour. Notwithstanding his country’s fortuitous twist of fate, PM Chastanet focused his remarks on the theme of global equity. Speaking to this newspaper shortly after his address, the prime minister posited: how can a country focus on Sustainable Development Goals when its citizens are struggling to eat?
Speaking in real terms, Chastanet described how for countries such as his own, concessionary development financing is the only shot at achieving any level of meaningful development in what he called the “new reality” of today. Yet, he went on, Saint Lucia and many nations in the Caribbean have been excluded from accessing these types of financing arrangements due to what the prime minister and his colleagues described as “discriminatory” and “shallow” fiscal thresholds such as Gross National Income per capita, one of the fiscal measures used by the U.N. and The Paris Club to evaluate the development trajectory of a particular nation. The Saint Lucian leader stated that standardized measures like GNI mask important dynamics in Small Island Developing States like his. Specifically, Chastanet criticized his countries “graduation”, alluding to the reclassification of Saint Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, and Dominica, among others, from Lesser-Income-Countries to Middle-Income-Countries—thus relegating them to the realm of commercial rate loans. For a country like Saint Lucia, this can mean the difference between accessing a 5 million-dollar IMF concessionary loan at 0% interest versus a commercial one at 10% – 13%. Chastanet argued that although many Caribbean islands have checked the box for graduation, they are all still plagued by deep, debilitating vulnerabilities, evidenced most recently by superstorms Irma and Maria that brought the region to its knees.
Suffering from high levels of sovereign debt, further compounded by the inability to access non-usurious development financing, Caribbean countries will never be able to build resilience to economic shocks and the rapid normalization of extreme weather events if they are forced to rebuild their cities every few years without necessary assistance from the international community—or the region’s traditional friends.
Chastanet’s closing remarks inspired both reflection and urgency: “The international community has betrayed our children. What is needed are real solutions in real-time.”