The Future Talks: Our Planet, Our Livelihoods, Our Future.
When you think of the Caribbean, there are a few things that come to mind; white sandy beaches, blue skies, lush green vegetation and the beautiful ocean. While these physical attributes are indeed reflective of the Caribbean, they ignore the harsh reality that we face in the region. Caribbean nations, like other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are uniquely challenged by economic hardship, food insecurity, health insecurity and the implications of climate change. As the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) concludes, we as Caribbean Youth implore that the plights of the Caribbean and other Small Island Developing States are not forgotten.
The countries of the Caribbean and other SIDS are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change compared to high-income countries, due to their smaller population sizes, economies and human resource capitals. The COVID-19 Pandemic has exacerbated these longstanding challenges, presenting increased stress on the already strained health, financial and labour sectors. This means in addition to the concerns about physical safety to protect themselves from the COVID-19 pandemic, Caribbean residents are also concerned about their livelihoods and economic stability.
SIDS contribute least to the climate crisis yet are amongst the most severely impacted. Largely countries of small size, low lying coastal communities and limited resources, the effects of climate change affect every aspect of Caribbean life and the impact on health is far reaching. We are all at risk; children, young people, adults and the elderly, with some groups more vulnerable than others.
For far too long, we have accepted the vast inequity in our society as the norm. Despite our vulnerabilities, we are resilient and we must seize every opportunity to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change to protect our home and our people. Now more than ever, we need to act to build our resilience to protect the members of our society that are marginalised by the harsh impacts of climate change.
In recent times we have experienced heatwaves, droughts and changing precipitation patterns. With increased rainfall, often off season, flash flooding is extreme along with landslides, rises in sea levels and coastal erosion. These activities affect our society in a variety of ways. For instance, flash floods can lead to damage and loss of property, livestock, crops, water supplies, personal items and even life. Such losses are a tremendous burden to members of our community, particularly people of lower socio-economic status, and to governments which are already resource-strapped and juggling to keep their citizens well.
Climate change is a major threat to our people’s health. There are many layers of affliction where we can see the impacts affecting at different levels. Children and the elderly are affected by heat waves and dust which can be linked to heat stroke and respiratory issues. Communities are affected by flood waters which can contaminate water supplies and damage crops. Floods create havens for disease-carrying insects and rodents leading to increased incidence of infectious diseases such as dengue. These, among other things, showcase the inextricable link between planetary and human health.
Undoubtedly, the implications of climate change also affects citizens’ access to healthy and nutritious food. Local food production can be significantly impaired due to the negative effects of climate change. Unusual precipitation patterns affect crop growth while storms, floods and other disasters can damage and lessen crop yield. The increasing temperature and acidity of our oceans affect ocean biodiversity; an alarming fact for a region that depends so heavily on our oceans as a source of food, among other things. In addition to this, infrastructure damage from disasters can reduce or completely cut off families’ access to stores and markets, both physically and financially. All-in-all, access to fresh food is threatened and this exacerbates the triple burden of malnutrition. Multiple levels of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and non-communicable diseases are rapidly increasing in the region. Childhood obesity, diabetes, hypertension, fatigue and even depression are directly related to poor diet and living conditions; both secondary effects of climate change.
A longstanding climate crisis has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Where do we go from here?
The Caribbean has a history of commitment to tackling the unique challenges of SIDS but we are far from fulfilling those goals. Whether it is the SAMOA Pathway or the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to realistically ask ourselves if we are ready and willing to attain them. Will we deny ourselves the opportunity to mitigate and adapt to climate change and the opportunity to reverse the harmful effects on the health of the region? WE CAN if we act in solidarity, and we act urgently.
Our mission as youth is to lead this effort. We strongly believe that education, advocacy and strong policy action are key. The knowledge gap between experts and policy makers and those who are severely affected is huge! Those who are most impacted typically have the least knowledge and resources to mitigate and adapt to climate change to secure a healthy life. And, even if they are knowledgeable, their individual efforts need to be compounded by supportive policies at the national and regional levels.
There’s an opportunity for all of us to contribute towards grassroots efforts that educate the populace. This includes sharing information that reaches people in the lower socio-economic levels through community outreach programmes and education. Special attention must be paid to sensitising children to the major issue affecting their generation. Families need to be taught green skills such as how to safely collect and store water. There should also be emphasis on how to provide cost effective and healthy meals, how to reduce one’s carbon footprint and how to adapt to the effects of climate change by knowing where to build houses and where to plant crops. Collectively, Youth Activists, Community Service Organisations and Non Governmental Organisations individually and together can play a pivotal role in this process.
At a country level, Governments must ensure that the school curriculum includes educational materials on mitigating the effects of climate change as children are key agents for change. Schools and other facilities should be designed sustainably to address increased temperatures and natural disasters.
There is also a need for governments to enact effective policies which safeguard our climate and health. All such policies must be child-sensitive with children and youth involved in their development. It is important that we build a future for our children! As Executive Director of UNICEF Henrietta Fore says “Every Child Deserves a Liveable Planet”.
It is our hope that COP 26 provides innovative solutions to help us survive, grow and thrive.
Protecting our health from the implications of climate change requires transformational action in every sector, most importantly energy, transport, nature, food systems and finance. The public health benefits from implementing these bold and ambitious climate actions far outweigh their costs. The main findings of the “The Health Argument for Climate Action – A COP26 Special Report”, includes clean energy policies, air quality measures, subsidy reform, smart agriculture and sustainable food systems, educational and civil society involvement, nature-based solutions and others. These solutions are all promising but we must continue to speak up, act and work together until we achieve meaningful change.
Priyanka Lalla, Renee Thomas and Kerrie Barker
On behalf of Healthy Caribbean Youth