Small Island Developing States in the eye of the hurricane and teeth of climate change 

By Carlton Joseph

Carlton Joseph

Last week, hurricane Ian slammed into the coasts of Cuba, Florida (FL) and North Carolina (NC); at least 100 people were killed, homes were destroyed, roadways and bridges were obliterated, and powerlines were ripped down leaving more than one million customers without power in Florida and 30,000 in North Carolina.  CoreLogic, a property analytics firm, estimates $47 billion in property losses, making it the most expensive storm in Florida’s state history.

For years scientists have been warning that storms are increasing in frequency and severity as global temperatures rise. Hurricane Ian has exposed the growing risk of climate disasters and the scale of havoc they can wreak on a country’s economy, infrastructure, and the liberalized global food system.  The US coasts, Caribbean countries, and coasts globally are at particularly high risk of more flooding, property damage, food insecurity, unemployment, and life-threatening conditions.  Insurer, Munich Re, reports that Natural disasters cost $280 billion globally last year, with damage in the US accounting for about half that value. 

The world understood that global warming would be a problem and the Paris Agreement came into force in 2016, as a legally binding document with a commitment to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.  The world also understands that energy is the primary input for countries to develop their economies, and herein lies the dilemma.  The industrialized countries want to continue using fossil fuels to further develop their economies, the “developing” economies, like China, must use energy, fossil or any other source, to develop their economies and improve the lives of their people.  Poor countries and small nation states, who did not create the emissions that are warming the earth, are on the frontline of climate catastrophe and do not have the financial or manpower resources to address the problem.

Worst, the G-7 countries in the 1980’s, using the IMF and World Bank, forced structural adjustment programs on these indebted countries throughout Africa, India, Caribbean, and most underdeveloped countries.  They were forced to carry out programs that reduced their own food production, making them reliant on food imports, and sell their national endowment assets cheaply to foreign multinational corporations.

The stated goal of the structural adjustment program was to help the borrowing nations pay off their debts and have a growing economy that will sustain them into the future; the real goal was to force these countries to accept privatization, liberalized trade and foreign investment, and the reduction of barriers to foreign capital.   These structural adjustments programs failed to restore economic growth and confidence in the participating countries, but it accelerated climate change, because the G-7 was able to deploy its world food security strategy based on an industrial food production system, dominated by multinational corporations, which is deeply reliant on fossil fuels.  The result, today’s food production contributes approximately 37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, making farmers both contributors to, and victims of climate change.

Added to this mix, 20 years of war in Afghanistan that forced the country to spend over 50 percent of its budget on war, and put people out of work in a nation whose people largely live off agriculture, has forced over a third of their population to face a food insecurity crisis, because they were not able to plant crops.  Also, the Ukraine war, because of disruptions to grain and fertilizer flows, has prompted the worst world food security crisis since the 2008 global financial meltdown, with some 345 million people now facing life-threatening shortages.  

Importantly, the US and Russia are among the top nations selling fossil fuels, Europe is a large user of Russian gas, and Ukraine is the bread basket of Europe.  The war has disrupted that supply chain and triggered energy and food supply challenges, exacerbating existing food systems vulnerabilities, already weakened under the effect of climate change and the COVID‑19 pandemic.  Also, Russia and Ukraine are key suppliers of critical metals used in the manufacture of green technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicle batteries.  The war threatens the global supplies of these materials and could prove disastrous for climate action by slowing the global energy transition.

In the United Nations General Assembly, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders presented a unified front on challenges faced by Small Island Developing States (SIDS), such as climate change, access to concessional finance and the impacts of the war in Ukraine on food and fuel prices.  Jamaica Prime Minister (PM) Andrew Holness called for a “comprehensive and targeted approach” to accessing development finance for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). He added that development financed is needed to survive economic shocks and recover lost and damaged infrastructure. He explained that they are forced to borrow, then only to be confronted again in a few years with another round of natural disasters, which could wipe out significant infrastructure and force them to add to already high debt.

Dickon Mitchell, Grenada’s PM, urged the international community to escalate  climate change to the same level of urgency as the COVID-19 pandemic, and that “the world must now accept that the solutions to these problems cannot be found in this grand Hall but rather in young people, who stand to lose the most from the inaction of the world’s current leaders.”   Philip J. Pierre, St. Lucia PM intoned that, “despite our small size, despite our deliberate desire to be a source of peace and friendship to all, despite our democratic traditions, and despite our earnest efforts to make the development of our people our primary objective, we find ourselves in a world stacked against us and frustrating our development at every turn. 

Mia Amor Mottley, Barbados PM, warned that: “A Security Council that retains the power of veto in the hands of a few will still lead us to war.”  Therefore, she said the reform of the Council “must not simply be in its composition but also be in the removal of that veto.”  She also questioned the relevance of the G-7 and G20 countries as the informal subcommittee of governance in the world, especially since it did not include people of Africa and African descent. Asking: “How can a world have at its core a subcommittee that excludes more than 1.4-1.5 billion people of the world and expect it to reflect fairness and transparency in its decision-making?”

The industrial food system requires lots of fossil fuel to produce fertilizers, and to transport products.  The G7 is making the decisions and wants to continue with global trade as it is, although the system is not working, this puts developing countries at an enormous peril from hurricanes, drought and famines, and destruction of infrastructure.  Countries need to return to domestic production and food sovereignty to ensure that their people can take care of themselves. 

The pursuit of profit above all else has resulted in soils so stripped of their nutrients that farmers have no choice but to add increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to maintain production.  Adopting climate-smart farming practices, and taking a more flexible approach to what is farmed where, will make food production more resilient in the face of climate change.  A total of 12 to 16 tropical systems are predicted in the Atlantic hurricane basin, and some might develop into major hurricanes.  We must seize this opportunity to make the renewables sector more resilient, and must protest wars that threaten global supplies and materials.  Investors, Industry governments and the public must ensure that we remain focus and avert the worsening climate catastrophe.

(Trinidad-born Carlton Joseph who lives in Washington D.C., is a close observer of political developments in the United States.)