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Image credit: Tim Marshall

Islands underwater

Islands underwater

Campaign together or get drowned out

Queen's Young Leaders – Jamilla Sealy and Luisa Tuilau – talk to LCJB17 winner, Denyce Blackman about the vulnerability of small island developing states (SIDS) in the midst of climate change.

2017 was a disaster.

In fact, it was a flurry of them.

The countries devoured by vicious hurricanes were left to clean up the mess as the world watched in horror. Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria killed at least 27 in Dominica alone and debilitated the nation, while forcing a mass evacuation of 1,500 people in Barbuda.

St Martin and Sint Maarten. Puerto Rico. Dominica.

The horrifying scenes unfolded live on screens worldwide. Catastrophes seemed to catch the islands off-guard. Except they didn’t.

Caribbean climate change experts have been challenging the international community to pay attention to their precarious predicament for years.

As well as intensifying yearly storms, the changing weather patterns also summon a menacing sea-level rise – threatening the survival of these and other small island developing states (SIDS).

Houses devastated after 2007 Tsunami in the Solomon Islands

Houses devastated after 2007 Tsunami in Solomon Islands. Image credit: AusAid

With many islands’ over-reliance on imports and tourism, and undernourished agricultural sectors, it draws a stark image of waning food security and economic instability.

“Climate change is like a delicious dish of fish,” says Fijian climate change youth activist Luisa Tuilau, “you wouldn’t know it’s poison until it’s inside you.”

She points to existing struggles of the South Pacific.

“Seawater is coming on mainland, destroying land and re-opening graves. Inconsistency in the fish cycle has led to the poor quality and quantity of seafood – leading to the scarcity of sea product, making it more expensive for locals to eat healthy. When the food quality decreases, there are health problems and these problems aren’t something we can easily cure.”

Barbadian Jamilla Sealy is Regional co-ordinator of the Caribbean Youth Environmental Network (CYEN). She says the increasingly warm and acidic ocean torments the sensitive coral reefs and their eco-systems, weakening the islands’ defences against destructive waves.

Sea-level rise means land is less arable and less habitable.

road sign in flooded area

Image credit: Hermann

Swallowed up

“In Belize, we saw a town that’s now just a village because a lot of it is now underwater. You can see stakes coming out where there were houses before. For those like us in Barbados that depend on groundwater, if the aquifers are in the coastal area, you can get salt water intrusion into that so you get less water. It’s not looking too good.”

“We are unique as small island developing states. And I would emphasise ‘developing’. The other countries have the money, the resources, the land. If something happens in New Orleans, they are able to move somewhere else, but we would have to go off-island if we are destroyed – to an entirely different space or country.”

Luisa cites examples from the Pacific. Kiribati has been forced to purchase land in other countries in the Pacific region since seawater inundated the mainland. And Tuvalu, an atoll nation, is just a few meters above sea level.

“Vulnerability is so much more than the loss of life,” she explains, “It’s the loss of history, identity and resources. Vulnerability does not end when Pacific islanders migrate to other countries. In fact, they become more disadvantaged in foreign lands. Other countries in the Pacific region like Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Fiji have experienced devastating cyclones that have left many people completely traumatised and fearful of the future. Re-emerging into life after a traumatising event is a struggle. Nothing is the same after that.”

Distant tropical island

Image credit: Ivan Slade

Devastating forecasts

The fifth and most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts some island countries will be seriously “threatened” by 2050 and “uninhabitable” by 2100.

Even more unfortunate for SIDS is their “actual damage costs are enormous in relation to the size of their economies, with several small island nations being included in the group of ten countries with the highest relative impact projected for 2100”.

Jamilla believes the 2017 devastation was a serious wake up call.

“You have limited land size and limited resources. Water, fuel and food – all three of those we import into our countries. Then we also have the threat of hurricanes because we’re in the way of the Atlantic weather system. We’re also in the earthquake zone and some of these islands have volcanoes. So we already have threats. You add climate change to that now and it has the potential to make everything worse.”

Strength in numbers

“We may not have the money, but we have a number of votes. It’s a process,” Jamilla declares.

“There are three major areas that have SIDS: the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea (AIMS). So if all those islands come together during negotiations, that’s a large voice.”

A booming voice.

In a victory within the 2015 Paris Agreement, the united SIDS convinced larger developed countries global warming must remain below 1.5 degrees celsius – a campaign now endorsed by the most powerful nations.

This was a major victory for CYEN especially, as the St Lucia chapter conceptualised the now-international campaign.

“The bigger countries wanted it to be 2 celsius but we said ‘no, 1.5 is where we want it to be.’ That climate diplomacy campaign started in St Lucia. The Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and CARICOM was behind it. The Eiffel Tower even had “1.5” [projected] on it. And the bigger countries took it up and said ‘yeah, let’s help these islands’. When I saw it I was like, ‘Wow, that’s something that we did.’”

Greater international support

Luisa agrees SIDS have been justifiably outspoken in international talks. Yet, she feels their progress is inhibited.

“What we all should be asking is why hasn’t the international community done more? Why is the pressure on SIDS, when their contribution to global warming is far less compared to developed countries?

“What are the world leaders prepared and committed to do in order to sustain a global future for all?

“World leaders have one foot in and another out the door. Success to me would be world leaders prioritising the issue and admitting that their inaction and lack of commitment on climate change has left the SIDS at a disadvantage.

“A global commitment with a genuine belief in a sustainable future is possible if stakeholders, big corporations, communities and world leaders see themselves as part of the problem and – knowing their critical role in climate change – make the necessary change.”

Satellite picture of a hurricane

Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria killed at least 27 in Dominica alone and debilitated the nation, while forcing a mass evacuation of 1,500 people in Barbuda.

Jamilla Sealy talks to patrons at the CYEN stall at Agrofest

“We may not have the money, but we have a number of votes. It’s a process.” 

Jamilla Sealy

Luisa Tuilau

“A global commitment with a genuine belief in a sustainable future is possible if stakeholders, big corporations, communities and world leaders see themselves as part of the problem and – knowing their critical role in climate change – make the necessary change.”

Luisa Tuilau