Domestic and International Efforts Needed to Protect D.R. from Climate Change

By Melissa R. Peña

Last September, back-to-back record hurricanes made landfall in the Caribbean. Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and Puerto Rico experienced direct hits causing catastrophic damage and killing scores.

Fortunately, the Dominican Republic was spared such damaging effects. However, the north coast, a key part of the country’s tourism industry, underwent substantial damage that will take time and money to rebuild.

But it could’ve been worse. I was 9-years-old living in Santo Domingo when hurricane George struck, killing 615 people and causing billions in damage across the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. I also remember a number of smaller tropical storms in the ensuing years. The good news is that it seems like each year we are getting better at managing hurricanes. Fatalities have been limited even in the face of powerful wind and storm surges. The bad news is that because of climate change, scientist warned that storms could become more frequent and powerful than anything we have seen in the past.

While countries negotiate the international climate change agreement, this week in Bonn, Germany, the time is right to discuss how we can best prepare for the future.

Not only are small island increasingly vulnerable to climate change impacts, our economies are heavily dependent on industries, specially tourism, that are also at risk.

Managing climate change is going to require concerted international effort both to reduce greenhouse has emission responsible for the events and provide resources that help developing countries adapt. And in this regard, our government should continue its initiative to strengthen its climate change diplomacy and engagement strategy, now more than ever.

Domestically, when it comes to disaster preparedness, there is much room for improvement considering the scale of the challenges we face.

The United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) recommends three approaches that will helps us prepare; protection, accommodation and retreat. In each of these, the Dominican Republic should continue to make some improvements. The protection approach refers to, hard structural solutions that provide a solid barrier between the land and sea. The accommodation approach, seeks to enable coastal populations to continue to occupy vulnerable areas and to undertake appropriate responses. The retreat approach refers to proactive withdrawals from the coast to reduce the risk from extreme events.

So, how can we start planning for the future so that the growing demand for touristic investment is not affected? The Dominican Republic needs to continue to invest on the implementation of its National Climate Change Policy, specifically the risk management practices and adaptation to climate change according to the specific vulnerabilities of the tourist areas.

Here are some ideas, based on shared best practices, that should be taken into consideration: rebuilding housing in compliance with a newly-imposed cyclone building standard, ensuring that coastal subdivision is above tsunami and storm surge levels, considering climate change and sea-level rise when rebuilding infrastructure and the enforcement of minimum construction standards.

In other words, build infrastructure resilient to climate change. Here at the climate change negotiations, just a few weeks after Irma and Maria, talk is already shifting to the next thing. The international community and specially people in the Caribbean who live in the hurricane track would do well to remember what helped protect us in the past and what we need to do to protect us in the future.

This falls under domestic responsibility to ensure that billions of dollars are not going to be lost for coastal investment, to guarantee the quality of life of those who live in these areas; and to protect the lives of those who visit and continue to contribute to our economy.

Melissa R. Peña is a 2017 AOSIS Climate Change Fellow from the Dominican Republic 

Understanding Culture and Belief Key To Climate Change Education in Comoros 

By Ahmed Abdallah

The recent weather conditions in the country, especially in Bambao region in April 2017 seems to have awakened old demons. Indeed, the fear of losing everything again haunts people from the region.

While many are still recovering from the floods that occurred in April 2012, severe climate events are striking again and again and tend to become more dangerous especially at this time of the year.

In 2012, climate impacts left several people dead and hundreds of families homeless; in total 64,987 people were directly affected–some 9% of the population of the three islands and 83,900 other were considered as “indirect” victims, according to the 2012 Government of Comoros, United Nations, Comoros Flash Floods: Joint Assessment Report.

When heavy rains strike and floods occur in Comoros, the scenario is easy to guess and always the same: inhabitants, overwhelmed by events, will venture into the darkness, under torrential rains, looking for a shelter: neighbors that are lucky enough to live in a two-story house often welcome strangers into their homes.

These extreme weather events are not isolated. Around the world, SIDS are suffering from the adverse effects of climate change and are vulnerable to,  hurricanes, rising sea levels, the deterioration of coral reefs.

In addition to experiencing severe weather events, Comoros is seeing changing rainfall patterns and coastal degradation.

Yes,  many of have still not made the connection between these events and  climate change.

Over these past two years, I have been involved in international climate change negotiations. I was able to work as an AOSIS expert and a small island state representative at several climate meetings and conferences around the world.

Even after learning a lot about the scientific aspect of climate change and the politics surrounding related topics, it seems to me that one of the most common obstacles many developing countries face is the lack of education on the issue.

It is therefore imperative for a country like the Comoros to integrate  climate change into their education system, as well as into trainings for officials. However, one must recognize that raising awareness and educating people on climate change can be a very difficult task.

We all have different cultures, languages and beliefs and, of course, our understanding and our definition of climate change also differs from one culture to another and from one belief system to another.

Climate change and its negative effects are the consequences of a process driven by human activities often characterized by massive industrialization. One of the most important articles dealing with the relationship between certain beliefs and environmental thoughts is Lynn White’s 1967 essay in which he states that Judeo-Christian theologies must bear the burden, in part, of current environmental degradation.

He states that Judeo-Christian texts can draw a clear line between humans and nature. The interpretation of these texts has made possible, among other things, the establishment of this collective orientation of most of the Western countries, mainly of Judeo-Christian culture and beliefs, which consists in putting humans at the top of the animal kingdom and also in raising him to the rank of “master of his environment”.

These arguments have been considered simplistic by many other scholars who have addressed the issue and argue that Judeo-Christian beliefs can also give rise to models in which humans are guardians of nature (Sonya Sachdeva, Religious Identity, Beliefs, and Views about Climate Change, 2016).

No matter which argument is right, this shows how important beliefs and cultures must be taken into account when raising awareness on climate change.

As people with predominant Arab-Muslim beliefs and culture; we, Comorians, must also incorporate these aspects into our understanding of the climate related events we face in our country.

More specifically, it is important for me to understand the existing connection between beliefs and the conceptualization of climate change. In my country, I have often confronted people who leave their fate in the hands of Allah saying that it’s impossible for them to change what is already written: “If this is the will of God, so be it. Anyway, what can we do as human beings?”.

During my interventions with young Comorian students or even with my family and friends, I hear the same kind of comments as if it was a means to alleviate the psychic pain that can result from natural disasters caused by a problem as big as climate change.

I also noticed a little carelessness and the absence of urgency among some Comorians when I addressed the issue of climate change, which often makes me hesitant to continue the discussion.

In “An Act of Allah”: Religious Explanations for Floods in Bangladesh as Survival Strategy (2000) by Schmuck, the author, found that Muslims in Bangladesh were able to avoid a sense of doom and despair because of their faith: if Allah caused the disaster then He would be the one to remove it as well. Indeed, this kind of behavior is not exclusive to the Comorians.

While acknowledging the importance of my country’s beliefs and culture, I tend to blame the lack of education on the issue. Educating the people on climate change is so important and so complex that we need more strong raising-awareness campaigns supported by the government.

The United Nations Climate Change Education Alliance stresses the importance of promoting meaningful, effective and results-based international cooperation. We must learn from the experience and the existing resources of other small island states with similar challenges. (Countries like the Maldives for example, we can learn a lot from these islands with the same climate vulnerabilities as the Comoros. As chair of the AOSIS, the Maldives are now one of the most influential countries at the climate change negotiations and yet it is a small island state with a predominantly Muslim belief, why can’t we learn from them?)

It is also necessary to prioritize climate change education among youth and remote communities as they are the most impacted by climate-related events.

Training for women is an imperative step for a successful raising-awareness campaign in a country like the Comoros where gender equality is key for the development of the country. A better understanding of the issues and increase the participation of local communities will enable people like me to effectively engage in the negotiations at the international level.

Indeed, it is easier for me to defend concepts and principles that I can explain to my people back home and thus help bridge the gap between the UNFCCC negotiations and the reality that communities are living on the ground.

While working with international organizations, I came to realize how hard the international community is working to mobilize the technical and financial resources needed to tackle climate change by focusing on access to information, sharing best practices and knowledge transfer.

However, let there be no doubt: everyone must do their bit. In the Comoros, this must start with a strong public-awareness campaign supported by the government. I plan to continue my commitment upon my return by organizing conferences on climate change and by touring schools around the country.

Women, children, young professionals, civil servants or employees in private sector, I really hope to see you all soon and we can recall together the words of Our Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “The world is sweet and verdant, and verily Allah has made you stewards in it, and He sees how you acquit yourselves

Ahmed Abdallah is a 2017 AOSIS Climate Change Fellow from Comoros.

Loss and Damage: Now More Than Ever

By Zoe. T Ayong

The people of Antigua and Barbuda will have 2017 etched in their memory as the year in which they came across death itself with the crashing passage of hurricane Irma.

It was not the only island country of the Caribbean to be impacted by Irma, but it underwent the most severe damage and for the first time in 300 years remains uninhabitable.

As the twenty third Conference of the Parties held in Bonn concluded, the decision on Loss and Damage under the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) left many developing countries with a bitter if familiar taste in their mouths.

The WIM, established at COP19 in Warsaw, gave the sensitive issue of Loss and Damage a “platform” where it could be addressed under a Executive Committee (ExCom).

At the Paris meeting in 2015, SIDS  worked hard to win the inclusion of loss and damage as a central part of the final agreement and were successful in having it placed under article 8. However, developed countries, particularly the U.S., insisted on assurances that the language would not expose them to open liability.

But two years later, little progress has been made in turning the agreement into action on the ground.

Currently, the ExCom meets at least twice per year and its members work together during the intercessional. However, it reports only once a year to the Conference of the Parties (COP) through the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI).

From a procedural standpoint, this means that while the ExCom works on loss-and-damage-related matters throughout the year, the opportunity for these matters to be considered by Parties happens only once a year. Indeed, concerns have been raised by several particularly vulnerable developing country Parties that not only has the profile of loss and damage been reduced because of the current procedural arrangements, but the opportunity for Parties to participate in this issue of highest importance to many, has been significantly reduced.

One way to address these concerns would be to amend the current reporting arrangements by mandating the SBI and SBSTA to consider loss-and-damage-related matters during the intercessional.

AOSIS has been advocating for a mechanism that deals with loss and damage since the early 1990s. But  the idea failed to gain traction until 2009 at  COP15 in Copenhagen.

Between 2009 and 2013, AOSIS relentlessly pushed the issue of loss and damage, resulting in the establishment of the WIM in Warsaw. The initial plan set out nine action areas for the ExCom–from understanding how loss and damage is associated with climate change, to the importance of having proper data in relation to loss and damage, and the general knowledge gap of the issue.

The ninth, and perhaps most important, action area is the “development of a five-year rolling workplan  to continue guiding the implementation of the functions of the WIM”.

That discussion continued into COP23, and the Fiji Presidency, the first for an island nation, helped focus attention on Loss and Damage once again.

The key SIDS priorities on the issue during the COP, which were shared with the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), African and Arab groups were: a permanent SB agenda Item on L&D; additional support for the Executive Committee on action and support; and an explicit link for Loss & Damage to the Financial Mechanisms of the Convention.

The developing country groups met strong resistance from partners, especially around issues that touched on liability and finance. But, as the negotiations went on, SIDS managed to strengthen the 5 year workplan of the ExCom and assure that loss and damage will be addressed at each meeting until 2019.

A placeholder for loss and damage in the other workstreams was also agreed, including in APA work under the transparency framework and global stocktake. This represented  significant progress for SIDS as it means loss and damage could still “possibly” be considered the “third pillar” of the Paris Agreement alongside mitigation and adaptation.

Parties also unanimously agreed to make provisions for a public awareness campaign to raise awareness about loss and damage. More specifically, Parties agreed to enhance efforts to ensure that information generated from the ExCom’s work is converted into user-friendly products.

This represents important forward momentum, but, with scientists projecting worsening climate change impacts to SIDS, and with no end to carbon emissions in sight, the international community is woefully unprepared to deal with loss and damage.

Hurricane Irma may only be a glimpse of what the future holds and without a concerted effort to manage loss and damage, human suffering will grow exponentially worse as well.

Zoe. T Ayong is a 2017 AOSIS Climate Change Fellow from Vanuatu.