Letters & Opinion

Fighting Climate Change In Our Own Backyard

By Clement Wulf-SoulageI have very little reason to doubt global warming is the major contributory factor in the changing weather patterns that threaten the planet’s bio-diversity, food security, water systems and economic growth. After all, the literature on climate change overwhelmingly supports the hypothesis that the climate system is warming and that humans are the main causal agents. As far as Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are concerned, current and future climate risks threaten both their ecological balance and prospects of sustainable development on multiple fronts, hence necessitating urgent action by the US, the European Union, China and India, the world’s worst polluters. Some are hoping that a legally binding and universal accord will be hammered out when the world converges on Paris this year from November 30 to December 11 to address climate change issues.

I, for one, believe that no major breakthrough should be expected on account that many countries believe any big push on their part to fight climate change will negatively impact their economies and cost jobs, especially at a time when growth prospects are low, unemployment high and inequality rising.

Nonetheless, I am pleased that Saint Lucia is at the forefront of the regional effort to focus attention on the impact of climate change through the many consultations and partnerships with various regional and international entities including the Clinton Climate Initiative. I also welcome the fact that key stakeholders in Saint Lucia have been discussing climate change mitigation and adaptation measures even as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is facilitating through a US$10.39-million grant the enhancement of the adaptive capacity of vulnerable states across the region with support from the Climate Investment Funds (CIF) Pilot Programme on Climate Resilience (PPCR).

Yet amidst all the heated debate about environmental responsibility and commitment, the contribution of SIDS to present global warming is negligible (combined SIDS annual carbon dioxide output is less than 1% of global emissions) – an ecological threat certainly not of their own making, but which will disproportionately impact their livelihoods and economies.

As with most people, my panic about climate change is equalled only by my confusion over what small islands like Saint Lucia ought to do about it. The industrialized nations that can really do much to tackle this escalating threat have been dragging their feet for more than a decade. The Kyoto Protocol, the UN’s first major initiative to combat greenhouse gas emissions, has largely failed due to US recalcitrance and ill-advised exemptions to developing and emerging economies. It is reported that last year, only two dozen of the about 200 countries cut their carbon emissions, led by mostly European countries.

As I said before, I do believe the climate change initiatives and measures Saint Lucia is taking are commendable. However, there is still a lingering feeling that not enough is being done to protect and manage our own immediate natural environment by way of regulations, laws and sensitization programmes. As small island nations, our relationship with ecological sustainability is about more than the impact of climate change. Of equal importance is the relentless thrust towards environmental conservation and protection, especially as it relates to flood mitigation. Drainage systems blocked by plastic bags and other packaging waste have been identified as a major cause of flooding in many Caribbean islands. The clogging of drains and waterways through the indiscriminate disposal of plastic was the primary cause for the 2005 floods in Mumbai which killed thousands of people. Hence, unless Saint Lucians change their habits and show more respect for their natural surroundings, I see an environmental disaster heading our way.

It’s so heartbreaking to see our beautiful surroundings indiscriminately littered with empty cans, plastic bags and other packaging waste. The unsightly mess after an entertainment event is a must see for anyone who wants to have a bad conscience for the right reason. The enormous amount of fast-food wrappers and miscellaneous garbage sprinkled carelessly on the shoulder of certain highways and byways is a national disgrace. It is not unusual to see a driver roll down his window and jettison garbage missiles onto the street or highway, then fearlessly drive off without any display of penitence. Alas, all this trash eventually ends up in rivers and streams – all the way to our oceans. Just where is our pride in this country? When will the revolution in our thinking begin? Our citizens need to look inward and demonstrate more personal responsibility, especially when we’re talking about social responsibility, eco-tourism and sustainable development. How can we reasonably promote eco-tourism in this country given the pathetic environmental mindset of our people?

Let us begin to alert people to the dangers of the plastic in our daily lives and how it chokes our oceans and trashes our beaches. Such an educational thrust should reveal to our people how plastic particles can enter into the food chain and return to us through our dinner plates. We have to realize that litter on our streets, beaches and in the ocean isn’t just ugly and nasty, it impacts everything. It can make the ocean more vulnerable to impact from climate change, coastal development and over-fishing. The research clearly shows that it impacts local economies, seafood industries and recreation, and reduces our access to beaches. Moreover, without corals many types of fish would not exist, because reefs protect fish as they mature.

At an event in the south not too long ago, it was rather unfortunate to observe not a single garbage bin had been provided for the disposal of waste, especially given the great number of children who were present at the event. What message are we sending to our young people? Should someone else have to clean up later? This is where I believe we have to nurture our people today into developing healthy habits that later form their personal and national characters. I strongly believe that the promoters and organizers of major events such as music festivals, football matches, etc., should be required by law to ensure that litter control measures are in place at the venue and in the surrounding vicinity before, during and after the event. Likewise, local authorities are responsible for keeping public places that are under their control, including public roads, clear of litter as far as is practically possible. This should include arranging cleansing programmes as often as possible, as well as providing and emptying litter bins regularly.

At any rate, the real challenge is to combat an economic model that thrives on wasteful products and packaging, and leaves the associated problem of clean-up costs. Critically, our island needs to introduce a levy system on plastic carry bags so as to encourage more people to buy durable bags for reuse when doing shopping. Let’s follow the lead of other countries and introduce legislation restricting the sale of plastic bags, in a bid to reduce littering and pollution. I believe the time has come to let customers pay for their own plastic grocery bags at the nation’s supermarkets. There is also the need for a national conversation on the recycling possibilities for plastic and glass bottles.

Changing the habits and attitudes of a population is a huge undertaking which will require the use of a number of educational and legislative measures to both discourage certain practices and sensitize the population of the hazards of pollution. The ongoing challenge will entail inculcating proper social habits in our children and educating consumers about their role in recycling plastics and developing new ideas for environmental conservation. This effort would also bring comprehensive programmes to the schools in which charismatic speakers would teach children about ownership and caretaking in their communities, for instance, taking an empty bag with them to the beach or park, and to ensure they take their rubbish home with them.

The establishment of a new environmental protection agency which allows people to lodge an offence using vehicle details and the time and place of the incident would be a very sensible thing. Such an agency would have the power to impose severe fines for improperly disposing of plastic waste as well as larger litter like furniture and appliances.

As I have endeavoured to explain, the debate on the impact of climate change certainly has its place in our national discourse, but conventional wisdom still maintains that charity should begin at home where awareness of our own environmental habits and proclivities must be raised. The goal is to transform environmental care into a learning experience not only for our children, but critically also for young and older adults. Littering is all about personal pride, and it is learned behaviour. Every one of us can make a difference by KEEPING our ecologically vulnerable island CLEAN AND LITTER-FREE.

For comments, write to Clementwulf@hotmail.com – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.

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