The Cliffhanger of Climate Change: Where Are the Citizens’ Voices?

June 10th, 2015

The French do love the word “citizen” (“citoyen” in French) and I like it, too. It signifies strength and purpose; someone who has a positive role to play in their nation. So on Monday morning,  I was pleased to attend a “citizens’ debate” organized by the French Embassy in Jamaica, to discuss the broad issue of climate change. It was broken down into digestible pieces, with lots of discussion in between.

Ambassador of France to Jamaica, Jean-Michel Despax. (Photo: French Embassy website)

Ambassador of France to Jamaica, Jean-Michel Despax. (Photo: French Embassy website)

The audience was an interesting mix of concerned, responsible Jamaican citizens from varying walks of life and age groups, making for a discussion that at times grew passionate but was always respectful and thoughtful. The French Ambassador Jean-Michel Despax reminded us that a crucial Conference of Parties (COP) meeting is looming on the horizon. COP-21 will take place in Paris from November 30 to December 11, 2015. I say “crucial” because indeed it is – each COP meeting seems more pressing than the one before. Each one is “crunch time.”

The amiable Professor Michael Taylor, who heads the Department of Physics at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona campus, and heads the Climate Studies Group there. Professor Taylor has a marvelous way of breaking down climate change, explaining a highly complex issue and making it accessible to a general audience. (Photo: UWI)

The amiable Professor Michael Taylor, who heads the Department of Physics at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona campus, and heads the Climate Studies Group there. Professor Taylor has a marvelous way of breaking down climate change, explaining a highly complex issue and making it accessible to a general audience. (Photo: UWI)

Climate change negotiations seem like a permanent cliffhanger, an extended state of torturous, nervous anticipation. Which country or group of countries will agree to what, and with whom? The Caribbean is in a group called the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), which just today (June 8) proposed that ”A 1.5 degree limit must be a part of the Paris agreement – for the sake of present and future generations.” Ah yes – there is a numbers game going on. In Paris, we are told, the overarching goal will be to limit global temperatures to two degrees. But, in the words of Professor Michael Taylor of the Climate Change Unit at the University of the West Indies, “Two may equal too much.” If the bargaining nations in Paris think a two-degree increase in temperatures is bearable… What if they miss it, and it goes over? In that case, Caribbean temperatures would expect to be four degrees higher by the end of the 21st century – which, by the way, would be unlivable. Since the industrialized age began, the Caribbean has already seen a one per cent increase. Our citizens are already becoming acutely aware of climate change.

Yes, they are already feeling it, living it, trying to adapt to it. Representatives from the farming community pointed out that they are struggling to cope with the effects of rising temperatures right here and now. It is ongoing. It will continue to happen. Who knows what this year’s hurricane season will bring? Hoteliers from Negril noted the impact on the tourism industry. Is anyone listening? I sensed, still, a “disconnect” between civil society – the citizens, who know and feel what is happening on the ground – and the government bureaucrats who listen patiently, and then go back to their desks to carry on with their policy frameworks. Yes, we had a consultation; that box is checked. Back to business as usual.

Incidentally, the Climate Change Division at the Ministry of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change (MWLECC) is “very, very small,” its director Dr. Albert Daley told us. How small is small? Well – how does three people sound? Yes, three. While we are being told that climate change is “the Everest of all problems” and “the biggest threat facing mankind today,” and so on, the Jamaican Government decides to employ three hard-pressed public servants to address it (and by the way, hasn’t the Ministry of Finance just taken on a lot of new consultants?) “But, we should have an entire Ministry devoted to Climate Change only!” commented one citizen. Dr. Daley touched on another dilemma when he told us all Government agencies “must sing from the same hymn sheet” on climate change – which is being mainstreamed into all ministries and agencies.  How long will the mainstreaming take? Bearing in mind the snail’s pace of Jamaican bureaucracy, I would guess at least ten years. Do we have ten years?

Associate Editor at the Jamaica Observer Kimone Thompson (right) conducts a "vox pop" with the citizens. (My photo)

Environmental reporter Kimone Thompson (right) conducts a “vox pop” with the citizens. (My photo)

Meanwhile, as another citizen pointed out, while the MWLECC is stressing the urgency of climate change and already dealing with drought, bush fires, floods and water shortages and other severe and very costly occurrences, other ministries (and the MWLECC itself) are charging ahead with actions that are in direct contradiction to adapting and mitigating the impacts of climate change. A planned transshipment port in a protected area, which will include the destruction of mangrove forests, seagrass beds and coral reefs (Ministry of Transport and Housing); deforestation in the Cockpit Country through the encroachment of bauxite mining (Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining); and sudden changes made to development regulations in Negril that will allow for the construction of larger buildings with a higher population density (already under way), leading to greater pressure on its already stressed environment (a combined effort of the Ministry of Tourism, MWLECC and others). The impacts of climate change are hitting us from all directions. Yet, as an audience member observed, we go to the United Nations and make pretty speeches about climate change, but go home and press on with these mega-projects.

An extended drought in several Caribbean islands is already wreaking havoc this year, particularly in the agricultural sector. Here, cattle seek refuge from the searing heat among shrubbery in Union Island, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (Photo: Kenton X. Chance/IPS)

An extended drought in several Caribbean islands is already wreaking havoc this year, particularly in the agricultural sector. Here, cattle seek refuge from the searing heat among shrubbery in Union Island, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (Photo: Kenton X. Chance/IPS)

Another note of concern: Dr. Daley stressed that the Government aims to have 20 to 30 per cent renewables by 2030; Jamaica will be playing its part as far as mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions is concerned. This seems an extremely modest target to me. How about twice that percentage? Jamaica’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is tiny on the global scale; but Citizen Mike Schwartz of the Windsor Research Centre in Cockpit Country informed us that Jamaica is actually emitting ten times more per capita than it is absorbing. A significant fact.

Why d0 our leaders seem to be backing away from climate change? Many are walking away. There are still those who flatly deny it. I sense a reluctance among many to stop, turn round and face it. I read somewhere recently that this is a common human psychological response. We are unwilling to face existential problems. We would just prefer to think this giant threat isn’t there at all, or that it will resolve itself; which it will not.

Back to those numbers again. It’s “1.5 [degrees] to stay alive,” declares AOSIS, our group of island states. Yes, it is a matter of life and death. And Jamaica only has three government officials working on this very issue of survival. The survival of our island, of the Caribbean, of the planet. Citizen Gordon from Jeffrey Town in Clarendon – a highly successful sustainable farmers’ collective – asked a telling question: “What drives our development?” Are we just looking at the mighty dollar and profit for our investors, or are we looking for a productive life in harmony with nature? A world we can actually survive in?

Many of the citizens came out of the meeting with heads spinning. However, some delicate and delicious “nibbles,” courtesy of the French Embassy, did help to calm our nerves. Just a little.

P.S. Will Jamaica have a People’s Climate March this year? Stay tuned…

Cyclone Pam in March destroyed almost every building on the Pacific island of Vanuatu. Chair of AOSIS Ahmed Sareer noted: "Up to 70% of disasters may now be climate-related…Human induced climate change has resulted in an increase in intensity and frequency of disasters." (Photo: AOSIS website)

Cyclone Pam in March destroyed almost every building on the Pacific island of Vanuatu. Chair of AOSIS Ahmed Sareer noted: “Up to 70% of disasters may now be climate-related…Human induced climate change has resulted in an increase in intensity and frequency of disasters.” (Photo: AOSIS website)

 

 

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8 Responses to “The Cliffhanger of Climate Change: Where Are the Citizens’ Voices?”

  1. Jeff J says:

    The governments, including our own government, are all deliberately ignoring the issue on purpose to continue deluding the masses of the root of all of our issues. Many people are unaware that the military system is directly affecting these instabilities of climate patterns we’re facing globally. Most Jamaicans don’t know about Ionospheric Heaters such as HAARP, the toxic aerosol ‘chemtrail’ spraying and the combination of these weapons in manipulating the weather as they please. This isn’t conspiracy of fiction, THIS IS REAL AND HAS BEEN HAPPENING FOR YEARS! Right now, more people need to be informed of just how much we’ve been under attack by the ones up the ladder for centuries now, from the Chlorine and Fluoride in our DRINKING water to the fact they’ve been poisoning both organic and processed food for the sake of profit! All of this can be researched and verified, but of course there will be MANY diversionary material that want to debunk these things. The easiest way to prove it is by looking in your own system and your environment- why do we have so many health problems and why must the pharmacy be the so-called ‘saviour’ for these ailments they helped to make possible? The main message for everyone who read this- question EVERYTHING that you were told, taught and shown to be the ‘reality’, asking why and where it all began.

  2. EmmaLewis says:

    Hello Jeff: Thanks for your comments. I was not aware of military activities affecting climate change over the years – although I am sure they have an impact on our environment. I do agree, though, that one should always be questioning. Why and how it began may well be more complex than we think. Many thanks for your remarks.

  3. Jeff J says:

    You’re most welcome, I’m doing my part to spread awareness to everyone I can reach as these issues are affecting us all. I won’t tolerate these forces hurting my friends and family anymore when there’s a better future in the horizon. :)

  4. Nuneka SW says:

    This was quite an informative article. However its in my opinion that the government has a chronic case of procrastination. This is evident as it is seen where the delay taking the task at hand until it becomes the wall right infront them. This is a sad fact. I just hope that through articles and other forms of activism that there will be enough public opinion and outcry to act as the catalyst to the drastic environmental change and frame work that we really need before even another one percent increase becomes a reality.

  5. Gr8 post! The citizens have no voice because they lack the knowledge. And, “for the lack of knowledge the people will perish.” This is A biggie that today we are treating as important, not urgent. But it is rapidly escalating AND may in fact already be in the quadrant URGENT – IMPORTANT.

    I am hoping that the Jamaica Climate Walk initiative being coordinated by Eleanor Jones and her team at ESL will help to raise the awareness and to get us started on managing the impact.

  6. EmmaLewis says:

    You are absolutely right, Cecile. I think it is almost in that quadrant… I think neither the government nor NGOs have done enough to “simplify” this complex issue for the “layperson” (something Prof Taylor is remarkably good at, by the way! A great skill). But people are seeing it happening all around them, without necessarily being aware of the bigger picture and what the future might hold in store. I am quite sure the Climate Walk will raise awareness, and am so glad Jamaica is doing it this year. Thanks for your comments!

  7. EmmaLewis says:

    Thanks for your comments, Nuneka. I agree with you – there is a strong tendency for government to be reactive rather than proactive. “Long term” is something they are not good at. Problem is, climate change is both short, medium AND long term! I think it is also prioritizing that is wrong. If climate change is so important, how can there only be three people in the Climate Change Division? So while there is an element of procrastination, there is also the incredibly slow pace at which things move. Mainstreaming climate change into every ministry and agency, though a laudable aim, will take years. I am not sure we have that amount of time!

  8. EmmaLewis says:

    We have to keep fighting for a better future, in whatever way we can…