At a time when scientists are warning that climate change could devastate the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands is a regional leader in certain preparation efforts.
Unfortunately, however, that’s not saying much.
Indeed, the VI, like its neighbours, has not done nearly enough to prepare for a fallout that could include larger storms; sea level rise; more-intense rainfall; and prolonged droughts, among others.
One need only consider last year’s hurricanes and catastrophic flooding to understand the implications.
The territory does have in place a well-conceived roadmap for the way forward.
In 2012, Cabinet adopted a Climate Change Adaptation Policy, setting dozens of specific deadlines — mostly in two or four years — for much-needed measures that in many cases had been promised for decades. Then in 2015, the VI became the first in the Caribbean to pass a legal framework for a climate change trust fund, and last year a board was finally appointed. Since then, a new eco-tax has been implemented that draws $10 from every visitor, much of which is supposed to go to the trust fund.
But in spite of these important steps, the VI is falling behind its own goals. To date, at least two thirds of the deadlines listed in the 2012 policy have been missed, and the trust fund is not yet operational in spite of the cash flow government is receiving from the eco-tax.
As the territory works to rebuild back stronger from the storms, this pace needs to speed up dramatically.
The goals in the Climate Change Adaptation Policy stand to greatly benefit the territory even if scientists turn out to be wrong about global warming. They include a national development plan that has been in the works since the 1990s; environmental legislation and planning regulations that politicians have pledged to pass nearly every year since the mid 2000s; long overdue updates to the 19-year-old building ordinance; and comprehensive steps to encourage alternative energy; among many others.
VI leaders have said that many of these reforms are in the works, but the repeated failure of such efforts over the past quarter century suggests that elected officials might be in no particular rush to see them through.
That needs to change. A full review of the Climate Change Adaptation Policy was scheduled for last year, but it was delayed by the storms. It needs to come soon, and it should include public conversation as an integral part of the hurricane recovery process. That dialogue should result in a new policy document with updated deadlines — which should be met this time around.
Meanwhile, the trust fund board should do whatever is necessary to get up and running as soon as possible, and the government should begin funneling the majority of the eco-tax earnings into the fund as planned.
It is heartening that the VI has been able to lead the way with certain preparations, but without consistent follow-up over the long term, the recent successes could prove to mean very little indeed.
Following through, on the other hand, will have benefits far beyond protecting the territory from climate change: It will improve the quality of life for residents and help draw visitors by preserving the precious natural resources that enable the VI to market itself as “Nature’s Little Secrets.”