As special envoy of Premier Andrew Fahie, Benito Wheatley attended the United Nations high-level meeting on the SAMOA Pathway on Friday in New York City. In a speech, he told world leaders about the “catastrophic” damage caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria and the need for external financial support. (Photo: UN Web TV)

NEW YORK CITY — At the United Nations on Friday, Benito Wheatley told world leaders about the Virgin Islands’ struggles to get help from abroad after it was devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

“The eligibility criteria on which international donors operate are so rigid that not even a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane was enough to justify a temporary relaxation of the rules to help a damaged society get back on its feet,” he said.

Mr. Wheatley described the “catastrophic” damage caused by the hurricanes, and the ongoing fear of another disaster aggravated by the succession of storms that have narrowly missed the VI in recent weeks.

“We must all keep in mind that the effects of climate change and degradation of biodiversity do not discriminate based on political status or income level,” he said.

Mr. Wheatley was speaking as the special envoy of VI Premier Andrew Fahie as world leaders convened for a day to discuss ways to help small island developing states — known in the international development community as SIDS — build climate-resilient infrastructure, transition to renewable energy, and access financing.

The one-day high-level meeting reviewed progress made on the SIDS Accelerated Modalities of Action — or the SAMOA Pathway — a plan of action for addressing island states’ priorities that was developed at the UN’s Third International Conference on SIDS in Samoa in 2014.

During the Friday meeting, leaders of international bodies and developed states touted their contributions to climate resilience and development funds and made vague calls for partnerships, agreements and conferences, but they made few concrete promises to address the impacts of the climate crisis in SIDS or to stymie climate change in general.

Meanwhile, many leaders pointed to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian as an example of the need for more accessible financing for island nations.

Virgin Islands

During Mr. Wheatley’s time at the podium, he explained that many of the partnerships the VI made at the 2014 SIDS conference were disrupted by the 2017 storms.

This issue, he explained, exacerbated the territory’s struggles. Although insurance payouts covered a portion of the territory’s losses, much of the public infrastructure needs to be rebuilt, he said, adding that the VI would need additional resources to make the “paradigm shift from recovery to sustainable development.”

“The British Virgin Islands will continue to advocate for greater access and inclusion in the international support offered to SIDS,” he said. “However, the existing constraints in the international architecture necessitate that we continue to seek out new partnerships to meet our objective of climate resilience and sustainable development.”

In spite of the challenges, some collaborations are now under way in the VI, he explained.

Currently, he said, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean sub-regional headquarters in Trinidad is providing the territory with technical assistance in preparing a national development plan that takes into account the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Similarly, he added, the UN Development Programme is helping the territory develop a “blue economy” road map to “optimise the potential of our marine sector.”

He went on to point out that the VI’s major challenge in sustaining its recovery is cost, but the per-capita income here is considered too high to receive official development assistance grants from international donors, despite the fact that the 2017 storms damaged some 80 percent of all building structures.

He commended the United Kingdom for trying to get the rules adjusted after the 2017 hurricanes, but said that the problem remains that in the event of a natural disaster the VI’s primary option to fund reconstruction is hundreds of millions of dollars in loans that have to be repaid by a population of 30,000.

“Debt in our region is already unsustainable and it is not a long-term solution for us,” he said. “Other forms of external support are needed in such circumstances, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic event.”

Mr. Wheatley also noted that the VI does not have access to the Green Climate Fund or the Global Environment Fund to assist in climate resilience works.

Exasperated

Other island leaders expressed frustration about the indifference of developed countries towards the unemployment, homelessness, environmental destruction and climate risks faced by SIDS.

They also criticised what they said were vague unfulfilled promises made in international agreements through the years, like the SAMOA Pathway, the 2030 Agenda for Development, the Paris Agreement, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

“I really cannot come here and continue to act as if it is life as normal,” said Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley. “There is no traditional norm in the part of the world where I come from.”

Ms. Mottley also made reference to the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who spoke forcefully at the UN Climate Action Summit on Monday of last week.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones,” Ms. Thunberg said. “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.”

Ms. Thunberg’s previous protests outside the Swedish parliament sparked an international movement of students who skipped class to participate in demonstrations demanding immediate action to combat climate change.

VI activism

These worldwide protests reached the VI on Friday, as primary school students and teachers of Century House Montessori School and Enis Adams Primary School came together to take part in the movement known as the Global Climate Strike.

They spent the morning creating banners and signs, and in the afternoon they took their protest to the surrounding areas and cleaned litter from the roads.

“We are protesting today to stand with Greta and the thousands of young people around the world in the fight for climate change,” said Century House student A’Nia Turnbull.

The same day as the United Nations high-level meeting on the SAMOA Pathway in New York City, students in the Virgin Islands from Century House Montessori School and Enis Adams Primary School took part in the Global Climate Strike, which has seen students around the world protesting for action against climate change (Photo: PROVIDED)

The schools registered their strike with the #FridaysForFuture movement, which Ms. Thunberg launched in August 2018.

At the UN meeting on Friday, Ms. Mottley praised such efforts.

“I don’t have the passion of Greta,” she said. “Or indeed, I don’t have to risk what Greta has to risk because on Tuesday I turn 54. She’s 16. And I’ve had the luxury of being able to live my life, as most of you have. But we have come to this point in time with this selfishness that is unparalleled.”

She went on to highlight the disastrous conditions currently being experienced by hurricane-affected nations.

“The people of Dominica who were affected, like the people of Abaco and Grand Bahama, don’t know where they’re going to earn money this week, don’t know where their children are going to go to school on Monday, don’t know where they’re going to be able to do their ablutions with pride and dignity, don’t know how they’re going to support their elderly, who require somebody to be next to them because they’re immobile,” she said. “The simple things of life we take for granted.”

Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne lamented that the discussions related to SIDS were relegated to a single day, and on a day when most world leaders were speaking at the UN General Assembly and not the SAMOA Pathway conference.

“As I look around this room, I must ask: Where are our developed partners? Where are they?” he asked. “And why are they all not here represented at the highest level?”

He echoed sentiments expressed by island leaders throughout the week, criticising major carbon emitters for failing to act while SIDS suffer the worst impacts of climate change.

“The injustice that is bestowed upon us is an act so egregious that the international community must recognise the right of our existence,” he said. “The emitters must be held accountable. Why should we pay for someone else’s greenhouse gas emissions? Why should we carry the burden for the unsustainable growth model? Why should our existence be threatened while they live comfortably within their homes? Why should we continue to be burdened with unsustainable debt levels and denied the right of reprieve?”

Ms. Mottley expressed similar sentiments.

“I ask myself, how many times must we continue to spend the taxpayers’ money to come here? And to hear the same thing over and over?” she asked to applause.

Peter Eriksson, Sweden’s minister for international development cooperation, also acknowledged the failure of major carbon emitters to take sufficient action, and the futility of placing the burden on SIDS to implement such ambitious climate policies.

“We can do many good things: invest in clean energy, finance adaption, plant trees and much more,” he said. “But we all know that out there is a flood of oil, coal and gas. Every minute, every day, every week of the year this flood is running.

“Change will not come until countries like Australia and China declare that the coal mines will close down, and countries like Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United States of America decide to stop new oil wells and make the flood of oil diminish.”

Island actions

Other leaders of small islands touted their ambitious climate policies.

Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama noted that his country has already listed the first sovereign “green bond” by an emerging market and is planning for a “blue bond” and a shipping bond. He added that the country is working with the Green Climate Fund to leverage Asian Development Bank support for a large climate-resilient water infrastructure project in the capital, Sula.

But Mr. Bainimarama also called on developed countries to provide more concessional finance, low-interest loans and low-risk guarantees as a way of encouraging private sector investment over the long term, instead of focusing on immediate investment returns.

Seychelles President Danny Faure spoke about the fact that many SIDS, including the VI, have faced the risk of being placed on the European Union’s “blacklist” of tax havens.

“This is a real threat to the financial sector and economic certainty of SIDS,” he said.

Mr. Faure also noted that his country has launched the world’s first sovereign “blue bond” to support sustainable marine and fisheries projects; has banned non-reusable plastic bags, utensils and straws; and has designated 30 percent of its exclusive economic zone as protected.

Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo pointed out that his country’s congress passed the Climate Action Act, requiring government to mainstream climate change into its programmes and requiring the president to submit a report to Congress on the progress of the policy’s implementation.

Developed countries

Lord Tariq Ahmad — the United Kingdom’s minister of state for the Commonwealth, whose responsibilities include the overseas territories and the Caribbean — responded to such concerns, describing improvements over the last two years in coordinated disaster response and in the ability to transport supplies quickly.

He nevertheless acknowledged the difficulty of accessing financing for SIDS — a topic he also addressed shortly after Irma — and said the UK plans to host a meeting on the issue in London.

United Nations officials discussed the success of the midterm review of the SAMOA Pathway at a press conference outside of the meeting on Friday. (Photo: GENEVIEVE GLATSKY)

He also pointed out that a UK ship was the first vessel to provide immediate relief to the Bahamas in the wake of Dorian, and said his country has invested £360 million in climate-resilient infrastructure in nine Caribbean countries, and has committed £1.4 billion to the Green Climate Fund, one fifth of which has been spent on SIDS.

Norway Prime Minister Erna Solberg announced that climate change adaptation is now a key goal for the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, the country’s international aid arm. She said the country is also doubling its contributions to the Green Climate Fund, and is working in a global agreement to combat plastic waste in the oceans.

She added that she initiated a high-level panel for sustainable ocean economy and that she, along with colleagues from Palau, Fiji and Jamaica, will present a roadmap for action at the UN Ocean Conference in Portugal next year.

A side event is planned to address the impacts of sargassum seaweed in the Caribbean, she said.

Proposing solutions

Several officials presented concrete proposals for helping SIDS mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, executive secretary of ECLAC, proposed solutions for low-cost, long-term financing for investment in climate adaptation, including a debt-for-climate-adaptation swap initiative.

Under this proposal ECLAC and the countries involved would negotiate with multilateral banks and creditors like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to shave 10 to 20 percent of the $56.2 billion in debt owed by Caribbean countries to put in a “resilience fund” to invest in public-private partnerships for projects like climate-resilient infrastructure and reforestation.

She said the project is starting off with St. Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but aims to include all Caribbean countries. She did not mention if this would include overseas territories.

However, Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness also highlighted the need for fiscal responsibility in managing debt repayment. He pointed out that Jamaica brought its debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio down from 149 percent to 95 percent in six and a half years through a disciplined IMF programme.

“We still have a duty for fiscal prudence, good management of public resources,” he said.

Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi, the United Arab Emirates minister of state for happiness and wellbeing, spoke about the potential of “forecast-based financing.”

This model, she said, would release money in advance of natural disasters based on credible predictions of hurricanes, floods or droughts.

“It is far more cost-effective than reacting only after disaster strikes, and can save lives,” she said. “The UAE sees forecast-based financing as essential for SIDS given the vulnerability to extreme weather events which are becoming more severe and frequent with climate change.”

Throughout the meeting, many officials acknowledged that the SIDS serve as a barometer for the disastrous effects of the climate crisis that will soon affect other regions as well.

“Many years ago, I trained as an engineer, and I learned an important principle: By solving a problem in its most challenging context, you solve it everywhere,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “Supporting small island developing states to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will provide us with tools, lessons and examples for the entire world.”

Zarrin Tasnim Ahmed contributed to this report.


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