Signs of climate change are becoming harder to ignore, in our own backyard and around the world. Hurricane Florence inundated the Carolinas with deadly flooding and storm surges. Massive wildfires estimated to be 10 times the size of San Francisco consumed California this summer. Heat waves shattered records on every continent north of the equator, from Sodankylä, Finland, near the Arctic Circle (which reached 90°F); to Quriyat, Oman, (which reached a low of 109°F — the hottest low temperature ever recorded on earth).
This summer of punishing heat also knocked out entire electrical grids, threatened food supplies and killed hundreds people from Canada to Greece to Japan. In fact, heat is now estimated to kill more Americans than floods, hurricanes or other national disasters.
Since modern record-keeping began, 17 of the 18 hottest years have taken place since 2001. Scientists warn that this is not only the new norm, but that the worst may be yet to come as we continue on a potential trajectory to warm the planet by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. That’s far beyond the 2 degree Celsius rise in temperatures that is considered the tipping point at which scientists fear life on parts of the planet will become unsustainable for humans.
The scorching temperatures choking millions of people from Idaho to India have made a mockery of Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe’s infamous display three years ago on the Senate floor where he held up a snowball to prove that climate change is a hoax.
Yet deniers like Inhofe still abound. Most prominent among these skeptics is President Trump, who withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, leaving the U.S. as the only country in the world to abandon the landmark accord. His administration has embraced fossil fuels as a cornerstone of its energy agenda while steadily rolling back President Obama’s signature climate initiatives to cut fuel efficiency standards for cars and phase out coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile, the debate over whether humans contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists overwhelmingly say are warming the planet still rages in many GOP circles.
In the Caribbean, though, which often finds itself on the frontlines of Mother Nature’s fury, the debate over climate change is a moot point.
For these islanders, the issue is not an academic one — it is an existential one, as rising seas, ferocious hurricanes, floods, droughts and other extreme weather patterns threaten their very survival.
The 2017 hurricane season only served to highlight how vulnerable these nations are. Two monster, back-to-back category-five storms, Irma and Maria, barreled through the Caribbean last fall, pummeling islands such as Dominica and Barbuda. They were part of a string of hurricanes that upended millions of lives, decimated infrastructure and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, setting the development of certain islands back decades. In Dominica alone, not a single tree was left standing after Maria plowed through the once-verdant landscape.
On their own, tiny islands like Dominica don’t stand a chance against the magnitude of storms like Maria and Irma. Together, however, they’re discovering the power of collective action.
Audrey Marks, Jamaica’s ambassador to the U.S., said the small nations of the Caribbean are becoming less complacent and increasingly joining forces to tackle climate change head on.
“I think for a long time, we had accepted hurricanes and other disasters as kind of a given. We are now in a fighting-back mode and that’s when more engagement is happening and that’s when we’re going to start seeing results,” Marks said during a lengthy interview at the Jamaican Embassy in August.
Full Speed Ahead
Marks spoke to us shortly after her country hosted the launch of the Caribbean Climate Smart Accelerator in the capital of Kingston, which The Diplomat attended. The Accelerator is an unprecedented venture whose goal is to turn the Caribbean into the world’s first climate-smart zone.
It began as a commitment made at French President Emmanuel Macron’s One Planet Summit in Paris last December and has since expanded to include 26 Caribbean nations along with over 40 private and public sector partners. Among them is the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which has pledged $1 billion in funds toward the Accelerator, and big names such as eight-time Gold Medal Olympian Usain Bolt and Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group and one of the key drivers behind the initiative.
Branson was on hand for the Aug. 9 launch of the Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator at the University of the West Indies, where he said that the initiative will not only strengthen the region’s resiliency against climate change, but also spur much-needed job growth.
“Our goal is ambitious. Our goal is bold. We want to create the world’s first climate-smart zone showing that climate action, economic growth and sustainable development go hand in hand,” said Branson, wearing a light blue T-shirt, flip-flops and his signature shock of white hair that stood in stark contrast to the buttoned-up diplomats, entrepreneurs and experts in the audience.
“Less than a year ago, several Caribbean islands were hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the space of a couple of weeks. The winds unleashed by these storms were more ferocious than anything any of us had ever witnessed. None of us were prepared. I certainly wasn’t,” said the British magnate and philanthropist, whose own private island in the Caribbean was ravaged by Irma.
“While many Caribbean islanders very tragically lost everything they own to Irma and Maria, I’ve been in these parts long enough to know that very few would lose their spirit. I never had any doubt that people from all across the Caribbean would bounce back, not by simply replacing what’s been lost and returning to business as usual, but by forcibly rejecting the idea that destruction and suffering will become the new normal,” Branson said.
“So the Accelerator was born to break down barriers, to aim high and to show the world what a climate-smart zone can and should look like — not just as a defense against hurricanes and disasters, but to help make the Caribbean an even better place to live and visit, while tackling poverty, creating great jobs and delivering robust economic growth,” he added.
Angus Friday, Grenada’s former ambassador in Washington, was also instrumental in establishing the Accelerator. Like Branson, he stressed that time is of the essence.
“Giving birth, as we know, takes time. But if you want to accelerate anything in the Caribbean, what better place to start than Jamaica. Jamaica’s prime minister was one of the first to sign onto this ambitious initiative,” Friday said at the Kingston conference, noting that record-smashing Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt will also serve as an ambassador for the Accelerator.
“Speed is so necessary because quite frankly we are out of time,” Friday warned. “One of the most salient reminders was last hurricane season that devastated nine of our territories. No crisis must go to waste, and we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn tragedy into opportunity. Our small but nimble Caribbean nations can be petri dishes for innovative solutions, policies and robust technologies that will contribute to a sustainable planet.”
Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness echoed the frustrations shared by many smaller developing states that are bearing the brunt of a phenomenon caused by their wealthier counterparts. “We didn’t start climate change,” he said. “But we have to pay the cost, and the cost to us is real.”
Back in Washington, Marks told us that the Accelerator will deliver real results because it’s based on action, not rhetoric.
“Part of what we used to suffer from in the Caribbean is that we make announcements and then after the announcement comes a celebration. But what we see now, which is very encouraging, is you have the announcement come a year after the hard work has been done to put all the pieces together,” she said. “This is how we operate in business.”
Marks, a prominent businesswoman herself, praised the Accelerator for embracing concrete, pragmatic goals. “They are measurable, they are realistic and achievable and, most important, they are time-bound, so it gives us a lot of confidence that this is not a talk shop. This is something that will make a difference.”
Strength in Numbers
Marks said she is also optimistic about the ambitious undertaking because of the sheer number of supporters behind it. She cited organizations such as the IDB, World Bank, Organization of American States, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States and the grouping of 15 Caribbean nations known as Caricom (whose chairmanship is held by Jamaica this year).
Just as important are the wide range of private sector partners, both large and small. Among them are Airbnb, which has started a program for hosts to open their homes to disaster survivors and relief workers free of charge, and Zero Mass Water, which makes clean drinking water essentially out of air by using thermodynamics and other technologies (which are currently providing drinking water to two major hospitals in Jamaica for the next 15 years).
Other business partners include heavyweights such as Microsoft, Tesla and, of course, the Virgin Group, whose founder said that by banding together, the small islands of the Caribbean can play an outsize role on the world stage.
“It’s truly remarkable that 26 Caribbean nations have supported the work of the Accelerator — countries with a combined population of 40 million people inhabiting 1 million square miles,” Branson said, noting that when you add in the private sector and multilateral institutions backing the program, “that’s a powerful coalition.”
“There’s an old African adage that says if you want to go fast, you go alone. But if you want to go far, you go together. This is the spirit of the Accelerator,” said IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno, who announced that his organization would provide $3 million in start-up funds to get the Accelerator off the ground, with the first tranche of $1.5 million available this year.
“Rather than being a collection of small nations struggling against international threats, the Caribbean will become an alliance capable of leading the world in overcoming the challenges related to weather and environmental extremes,” he said.
Moreno, a former Colombian ambassador to the U.S., conceded that “the sheer scale and complexity of climate change can overwhelm decision-makers, leading to paralysis.”
But that’s exactly why the Accelerator is unique, because it’s geared toward practical, tangible solutions, Moreno said, citing projects such as electric vehicle fleets, energy- and water-efficient buildings, storm-resilient infrastructure, stronger disaster management systems that use technologies like artificial intelligence, and sustainable agricultural and tourism practices.
All of those projects get to the core of the Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator’s mission, which is to improve resiliency and disaster preparedness; invest in renewable energies; and develop sustainable cities, oceans and transportation.
On its face, the Accelerator can sometimes sound like many other development schemes that throw out lofty rhetoric and mind-numbing jargon like “promoting socio-economic growth” and “catalyzing innovative, dynamic partnerships.” But behind the buzzwords lie specific projects with real-world implications for millions of people.
For example, former Ambassador Friday said that Grenada, with help from the Green Climate Fund, is investing $300 million to build the world’s first “climate-smart city” on the island, which in 2004 was torn apart by Hurricane Ivan.
To do that, the country has enlisted urban planners to implement common-sense, grassroots solutions, such as fortifying the low-lying capital against a rise in sea levels. (An increase of just half a meter would destroy up to 83 percent of Grenada’s beaches, threatening its economic lifeline, tourism.) But that doesn’t mean erecting concrete fortresses around beaches that would deter tourists. Rather, one idea is to build natural barriers or pedestrian-friendly esplanades that act as de facto seawalls.
The island is exploring other ways to adapt to climate change — for instance, planting mangroves, which store carbon and blunt shoreline erosion; diversifying its agriculture away from staples like nutmeg to more resilient crops like cocoa; and improving urban planning to prepare cities for the inevitable influx of people who flee rural areas when disasters hit.
Many climate mitigation strategies don’t necessarily require high-tech innovations. They can be as simple as working with the environment, not against it. For instance, buildings can be designed to be more open and take advantage of tropical breezes, as opposed to glass-enclosed structures that require more air conditioning and are prone to damaging winds.
Another obvious solution: strengthening and enforcing building codes. But as Friday pointed out, this takes money, which is why economic development is the best defense against climate change.
Economic vulnerability “is where you see countries really fall down,” Friday said. “In Bermuda, the country functions the next day after a hurricane. Why is that? Everybody has a concrete roof. Why is that? In Bermuda, the per-capita income is $75,000. In Grenada, it’s $7,500.”
Marks saw this dynamic play out firsthand during a visit to Peru last year.
“They had an earthquake and I didn’t even know because they had taken the initiative some years ago to [construct] their buildings and their hotels to be able to withstand a certain level of earthquake. And so I think the focus on being climate smart is going to shift how we do development.”
Rebuilding the Right Way
Marks admitted that this paradigm shift will take time, commitment and a concerted effort to convince developed countries to help smaller nations regularly battered by natural disasters, especially once the headlines fade and the next tragedy strikes.
Donor fatigue coupled with the international community’s short attention span are universal dilemmas confronting small states like Dominica and Barbuda, which are still reeling from last year’s hurricanes.
Didacus Jules, director general of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, who spoke at the Accelerator launch, said that Hurricane Maria killed 65 people in Dominica and resulted in over $930 million in damages and $330 million in economic losses. That represents a staggering 225 percent of the country’s GDP in 2016.
Recovery will take decades, if not longer. Dominica, a lush island that had been a regional breadbasket, instantly saw its agricultural and tourism sectors wiped out by Maria. “That’s a complete blast back to the past,” Jules said, noting that tens of thousands of Dominicans have fled the island — a brain drain that will further stymie recovery efforts.
Jules said the country will have to fundamentally rethink how it should rebuild to brace for a turbulent future. He pointed out that the Caribbean experienced 1,325 storms from 1851 to 2004. “So the question of hurricanes as major disasters is not new to us. What is different is the fact that this is coming with unprecedented ferocity and frequency,” he said during a panel on smart cities at the Kingston conference.
That conference, in fact, took place the same day news broke that Hurricane Maria killed over 1,400 people in Puerto Rico, a far higher estimate than the initial death toll of 64. Since then, that figure has skyrocketed to nearly 3,000 dead, a sobering reminder that even the richest nation on earth struggles to cope with the aftermath of catastrophic storms.
Marks said she was satisfied with the initial response to last year’s rash of hurricanes but that global attention has since waned, a common problem for countries trying to rebuild after disaster.
“What we do know from our Caricom partners is that the recovery process is very slow for the countries that were most affected” by last year’s hurricanes, she said. “They are open for business, but in terms of the population and general infrastructure being back to where they wanted to be, it’s still a slow process. But at the same time they are taking the lesson of this experience to look at their rebuilding in a smarter way.”
For its part, Jamaica has built a global resiliency center to bring together research and best practices not only on climate change, but “any form of disaster, including epidemics.” The government also established a ministerial-level position dedicated solely to the environment and climate change.
Marks’s boss, Prime Minister Holness, said that while people continue to debate what exactly it means to be “climate smart,” for him the definition is simple: It means fighting climate change while fostering economic growth. And the two objectives, he stressed, are “compatible, not competing.”
All About the Bottom Line
But for many businesses and governments, promoting the economy while protecting the environment is not always compatible. Adapting to climate change is not cheap. It entails significant investments in upgrading homes, businesses and infrastructure — largely in countries that already struggle to meet the basic needs of their citizens.
But Marks says the investment is worth it.
“For me as a business person first and a diplomat second, there’s a difference between expense and investment. So when you spend a large amount of money, it’s written off as an expense because it’s a short-term return.”
In contrast, investing in climate resiliency yields long-term dividends.
Marks cited the example of burying electrical cables underground, a costly endeavor. “But the government doesn’t have to take that on by itself. The private sector entities are pushing that because building the resilience of the electricity service makes sense … because when you have a hurricane and you lose power for a week or two, that impacts your bottom line.”
Likewise, businesses have to financially prepare for climate-related disruptions. “When you plan a budget, even though you put in contingency, you hardly ever put in to be out of operations for a week, which is the minimum that will probably happen when a hurricane hits if it affects the fundamentals such as electricity and roads,” she pointed out.
Marks herself has an extensive business background. Among her ventures were a 100-acre banana exporting farm, a transportation company and a real estate company. She is perhaps best known for having founded Paymaster (Jamaica) Limited, an online payment system she began in 1997.
As an entrepreneur, she understands the importance of factoring climate change into any business plan. In fact, that’s why she moved away from banana exports, which are vulnerable to droughts and floods, to cash crops that can be turned around more quickly.
The ambassador said the Caribbean is powerless when it comes to curbing global greenhouse emissions (Caricom members produce less than 0.25 percent of the world’s total). However, as an influential coalition of 26 small states, the region can flex its economic muscle to prod larger nations to rein in their emissions.
“Emissions are mainly out of our hands but we have a role to play … by increasing our lobby power at the U.N., at the World Bank, etc. For a long time, we became complacent. Now, if we become a thorn in the side of the countries that are causing … the most greenhouse gas emissions, we can have some impact because we have enough numbers. And most of the countries that are responsible [for climate change] do business in our countries and want to continue to do business in our countries.”
The Business Approach to Diplomacy
Marks’s emphasis on the bottom line in many ways mirrors President Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy. Marks says she doesn’t have a problem with Trump’s “America First” agenda and argues that other governments should adapt to the former real estate tycoon’s unorthodox governing style.
“It’s very clear that President Trump and this administration are very focused on what they believe will work best for America. And so I think there is a bigger onus now on the wider global community to continue the dialogue and to really prove why it’s essential for U.S. interests to remain involved” in issues such as climate change, free trade and immigration.
But Trump has railed against international agreements that he says rip off American taxpayers. Marks concedes that “it’s not the usual diplomatic approach, but it makes sense for the mandate that the administration came in on. So the rest of the world has to recognize and respect that mandate … and show why the investment is worth it to the American people.”
That’s precisely what Jamaica and its partners at Caricom are trying to do — leverage their collective economic might to stay on the administration’s radar.
“The Caribbean Basin countries represent over $50 billion of non-oil imports from the U.S., so the region that I’m representing is the seventh-largest importer of goods and services from the U.S. For this administration, that’s a big plus because they have a trade surplus with us and we are a consistent consumer, which leads back to [American] jobs.”
She said Jamaica has “excellent” relations with the administration, as well as Congress and agencies such as the Departments of Labor, Defense and Homeland Security.
The country is currently working with the Commerce Department on an upcoming road show that will tour various U.S. cities to drum up investment in Jamaica, which last year welcomed a record 4.3 million tourists, a dramatic jump from the 2 million who visited the island just seven years earlier.
In addition to trade and tourism, security is a cornerstone of the bilateral relationship.
“We share a common border — we call it the third border of the U.S.-Caribbean, so this is very critical for the U.S. in these times of uncertainty to ensure they have a continued interest in what happens along that third border,” Marks said.
“We have stressed to the U.S. that you cannot withdraw from the Caribbean because you create a vacuum for others to come in, and in the bigger game of geopolitics, you do not want to create empty spaces or vacuums on your doorstep or in your backyard.”
In 2010, Kingston was rocked by open shootouts between a powerful drug cartel and law enforcement. Since then, Marks says that narco-trafficking is down dramatically. But that doesn’t mean crime isn’t a problem.
More recently, a new criminal enterprise has emerged called the lottery scam. “It is where persons will call mostly American pensioners and advise them that they have won the lottery and to send money to collect their goods,” Marks explained. “At this point it’s said to be more profitable than the cocaine trade because so much money is sent back by elderly pensioners.”
Marks said her government has made targeting these lottery gangs a priority and is collaborating closely with the FBI, which has established an office in Montego Bay to deal with the issue.
Despite significant strides that the government has made in improving safety and the economy, many Jamaicans have migrated to the U.S. in search of a better life. In fact, Marks says the U.S. is now home to over 1 million citizens of Jamaican descent.
Marks said President Trump’s crackdown on immigration, both legal and illegal, is the diaspora’s number-one concern, which is why Jamaica is encouraging longtime green-card holders to apply for U.S. citizenship and vote in upcoming elections.
But perhaps the biggest area of disagreement between the administration and Jamaica — along with its Caribbean neighbors — is climate change, a non-issue as far as Trump is concerned.
Marks puts a positive spin on the president’s climate agenda, or lack thereof, saying his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord has provided the world an opportunity to make its case to climate skeptics in the U.S.
“We have a responsibility to educate and build awareness of the reasons for our beliefs,” she said. “Sometimes you can be right, but if you’re arrogant about being right and the knowledge that you have, it doesn’t help to get a broad-scale consensus.”
Marks added that “it’s easy for us to get complacent about our beliefs, but it’s important to recognize the world is dynamic and there are different opinions.”
This is Marks’ second posting in Washington. She served here as ambassador from 2010 to 2012 during a very different political era under Barack Obama. But Marks plays down these differences.
“I notice there’s a lot of angst. It is a big change in policy and direction, but I find that the institutions of the U.S. remain the same,” she said, admitting that “in some ways you can’t rely on the same old diplomatic playbook. You have to make sure you focus on aligned interests.”
“So you might have different experiences, different leaders, but overall the way the U.S. operates is built by the institutions of the country, and those have not really changed much and in fact that’s part of what leads to the stability and strength of the United States.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.