'Climate change is not their priority'
🌐 A view from Trinidad & Tobago, with Michelle Scobie.
In last week’s Media edition ($) I shared three lessons learnt in my career shift from research to journalism many moons ago.
Analysis and global perspectives in health, development, planet.
Things sometimes look different from a small island.
You may have heard: the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest scientific report earlier this week. Among the key takeaways we outlined in Tuesday’s briefing is that one of the changes already "locked in" the system is the melting of Greenland's ice sheet, which is expected to keep raising sea levels for centuries.
Small-island nations are on the front line of impacts like sea-level rise. And the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago is one of those nations. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, it’s facing rising sea levels that comes with the loss of coastal habitats; it’s also facing greater flooding and erosion, and more unpredictable and extreme weather in a region already battered by tropical storms. All this comes with knock-on effects on people’s health, the environment and the economy.
But listening to Michelle Scobie, an expert in environmental governance and an attorney based on the island, a part of the global climate change narrative comes into question.
AM: We've been hearing about the new IPCC report on climate change, a global problem but one in which small-island states come up a lot as highly vulnerable. How does it look, from where you’re sitting, to have that kind of attention as a vulnerable region?
MS: Small-island states have been very vocal through AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) in creating a discourse around climate change and their own vulnerability. They have contributed quite a bit in climate diplomacy to what the IPCC does [and] have raised the profile of themselves in the eyes of the world. There are states that will disappear if sea levels continue to rise, especially in the South Pacific. And then you have states like the Caribbean where that is unlikely, but a lot of coastal communities will be affected.
The increase in the intensity and number of serious extreme events—climate funding is coming for that. [But] the meteorologists and disaster preparedness people, when they’re honest, say the Caribbean has always had disasters, and it's always been a challenge to deal with them. This is not new for us. Whether we have two or three, the problem is that it decimates the island and you have to start over from scratch in some cases. So, getting home-grown understandings of the ways in which we can overcome disasters [in the] medium and long-term would be more important than focusing on climate change. The problem with focusing on climate change is that it carries with it not only the adaptation side but very much the mitigation—but all of the [island] states together contribute less than 1% of global emissions.
Tell me a bit more about how that homegrown understanding features in your work.
I lecture on international law and global environmental governance at the Institute of International Relations, The University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago. I'm very passionate about all things environment. However, I find that a lot of the discourses around the environment tend to be Northern driven. I tried to create a counterpoint to that.
I speak with a lot of my science colleagues, and they tell me the problem is not the science: we have the reports, we've given [them] to the policymakers, but these people just can't get their act together. And for me that's not enough. So I've evolved into focusing quite a bit on environmental governance. It's a small field—we are comparatively few scholars in the Caribbean.
What’s an example of the need to take a governance perspective to arrive at solutions?
I interviewed persons working on climate change for many of the islands of the Caribbean. At the time, in one country, there were two people in the department of climate change. And they didn't know what the other departments were doing on issues that had an impact on climate. Public servants in the Caribbean are very dedicated, very hardworking. But they suffer from the consequences of small scale.
Obviously, a small department cannot keep up with all the global processes related to climate change that they need to do reporting to, for example—much less can they keep up with the level of networking required between departments to ensure greater synergies in the creation of policy. They lack something super important, which is getting input from stakeholders. They also [face] challenges with monitoring the feedback loops which are crucial to ensure that policy is adjusted as needed.
The other problem is that because development is funding-led, the project becomes the policy and the policy ends when project funding ends. And for a lot of the environmental issues you need longevity, you need sustainability.
It goes back to what you were saying initially, that much of the governance conversation happens in the Global North, which has more resources. Have you heard this view from other colleagues?
When I go to international meetings and I've spoken, then there's silence in the room. I remember arguing that we're living in two worlds—because the discourses and the ways of looking at things are so different, and often because these discourses are Northern-led. What [well-meaning people in the North] write about, that's how they see the world, and often it's, ‘why doesn't the developing world just get their act together’—and it's sometimes a lack of understanding of the reality.
Then you have others who [say] yes, this is exactly what people need to hear.
These are colleagues you’re working with for a project looking at climate change and health—what is it about?
It's a Belmont Forum funded project, particularly looking at community action in a Caribbean island rural community and in a rural community in Alaska. We're looking at the ways in which the community groups organise themselves to deal with climate-related environmental change.
In Trinidad, we're working in a community called Toco in the northeast. It's a small community, maybe a few thousand. What I found though is that climate change is not their priority. It is very interesting.
You know, if you have this interview with them in the next five years or seven years, these people are going to tell you that climate change is super important for their health. Because the region is rolling out the climate change and health policy, and they're going to go into communities saying why climate change is important. So the project is at a fantastic spot, because we're hearing from people what they think, not what they will be encouraged to think in five or 10 years. And right now, they tell you that when it comes to health, climate is not the issue.
Their issues are poverty caused by the fact that they're in a rural place [and] don't have easy access to large towns where they can get jobs, where they can get education. The health issues are more related to nutrition, because traditional foods would not be those that would create balanced diets. The issues are related to problems with fishing, which have very little to do with climate change and again have more to do with the small scale at which they fish, and the inability that they have to make that into something viable long-term.
Do you think this goes beyond this particular community that you've spoken to? I’m wondering if there’s one overarching issue you would say people on the island are dealing with, be it disasters or poverty.
If you speak about disasters, you're talking about the impact of an event. If you're talking about poverty, you're talking about the consequences of a variety of decisions. So it's not so easy to pinpoint one problem.
I would say the root of all of the issues that states in the Caribbean face are a consequence of the nature of small states in the global system. It's very difficult to continue to be competitive at any scale because of size. Obviously, poverty is a consequence of low incomes, but low income is a consequence of being unable to bring in enough money, and that is a consequence of many things related to scale.
But it's also that being small, one of the impacts is the way the development community works. Small states have less of a voice, or less in managing their own priorities. They have to try to adjust the development programmes to suit the funding that they get. So, if I would just say one governance issue, I would say the space and the agency of small actors within the global governance architecture.
*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
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