For vulnerable island nations like the Virgin Islands, there were few surprises this year at the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference.
Despite some important progress in the right direction at COP27 in Egypt this month — most notably the belated commitment to establish a loss and damage fund to assist developing countries affected by the climate crisis— the wealthy nations that contribute most to global warming have continued to fall far short of their pledges to cut emissions. As a result, they almost certainly won’t meet their oft-stated goal of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The VI and other island nations are among the jurisdictions that will suffer the most from this unconscionable inaction. Hurricanes are expected to become more powerful and more frequent. Worse droughts are predicted, as are periodic torrential rains. Coral and other marine life will die off as oceans warm. Low-lying population centres — and the entire island of Anegada — will be threatened by rising sea levels. The list goes on.
Caribbean leaders have protested loudly in Egypt in recent days, with Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley continuing to take the lead.
We were glad that VI Natural Resources and Labour Minister Mitch Turnbull attended the conference as well.
Even though overseas territories inexplicably do not have a seat at the COP negotiating table, Mr. Turnbull signed a well-conceived declaration on climate financing along with parliamentarians from nine other countries and territories in the region. He also met with newly appointed UK overseas territories minister Lord Zac Goldsmith, rightly urging him to help the OTs amplify their voice on the global stage.
For this work, Mr. Turnbull deserves kudos. In an ideal world, such public action would spur dramatic action from the wealthy countries that together have caused the climate crisis. But in reality, economic and political pressures mean that those countries will continue to drag their feet.
Mr. Turnbull, then, must not relax after he returns to the territory. Given that VI leaders cannot force larger countries to cut emissions, they need to focus too on mitigating the fallout here at home.
To that end, the former National Democratic Party-led government made important progress during the past decade, accessing international expertise and implementing systems that made the territory a regional leader in many respects.
Unfortunately, that progress has since stalled. In 2012, for example, the Cabinet adopted the well-conceived Climate Change Adaptation Policy, committing to dozens of specific deadlines for badly needed measures that in many cases had been promised for decades. Then in 2015, the VI became the first in the region to adopt a legal framework for a climate change trust fund overseen by an independent board. An eco-levy followed in 2017, with officials promising that a portion of the $10 collected from each non-cruise-ship tourist would go directly to the trust fund.
This work briefly put the territory on the cutting edge of climate policy in the Caribbean, but because implementation mostly stalled, the VI is now falling far behind other jurisdictions.
For instance, the great majority of the deadlines laid out in the 2012 policy were missed, and they still have not been achieved ten years later. The eco-levy money, meanwhile, remains untapped for reasons that have not been adequately explained.
The trust fund board was appointed in 2017, and its unpaid members got to work. But they were unceremoniously dumped by former Premier Andrew Fahie’s government in 2019.
Clearly, Mr. Turnbull, who was appointed minister when the current National Unity Government was formed in May, has much to do. The NUG recently took an important step in the right direction when it announced plans to reappoint the Climate Change Trust Fund Board. We hope the body will also receive funding very soon from the eco-levy money so that it can get back to work.
But the government’s efforts must not stop there. Also on the agenda should be a comprehensive review of the 2012 adaptation policy, which was due in 2017. That review will be damning: It will show that the territory has fallen far behind its lofty ideals and that residents have been endangered as a result.
But it’s not too late. Indeed, the VI will benefit tremendously if leaders return in earnest to the policy, which is a well-conceived strategy not only for mitigating climate change but for making enlightened national decisions that will make the whole territory a better place.
For the Virgin Islands, climate change is an existential crisis. Now is the time for action.