It’s easy to spot Caribbean people. They tend to be the ones walking as though they’re dancing, speaking as though every word is part of a melody, and unable to keep their hands out of the conversation. These musical talents were put to use in the ‘1.5 to stay alive’ campaign and the live performances by Aaron Silk (Jamaica) and Adrian Martinez (Belize) became a major attraction. We followed the sound of music to the Caribbean Pavilion at the UNFCCC’s COP21 in Paris. The song brought a message from the people of the Caribbean asking world leaders to agree to a maximum 1.5 degree temperature limit in order to give us a fighting chance against climate change.
Climate change is real and present in the Caribbean. Speaking about survival is not rhetoric as these islands have been appointed as some of the most vulnerable countries in the world, with very little ability to deal with the onslaught of drastic weather patterns and the outcomes of these. As a matter of fact, the region is being hit by its worst drought in five years. Crops are perishing, entire riverbeds are becoming visible, livestock is dying, and reservoirs are drying up. Due to climate-induced El Niño’s wrath, our reality will not get better anytime soon. During El Niño 2010, Trinidad and Tobago experienced what was declared “severe drought” conditions and recorded about a quarter of the expected rainfall. Heat-induced fires massacred the Trinity Hills, thick black smoke ushered forest animals to their demise, water reserves reached critical levels, crops failed nationwide, citizens suffered loss and damage due to flash flooding, and rain fell once for the entire month of March 2010. Five years later, the situation is worse.
Living this climate vulnerability, representing the Caribbean at COP21 was a great opportunity. We were proud to represent Caribbean youth, a subset of society which usually slips under the radar at such high-level negotiations. Moreover, as young women involved in climate change research and advocacy in the Caribbean, getting to COP was a major accomplishment. For Ayesha, coming from Jamaica, it was the culmination of a year of preparatory work, awareness building activities, and online meetings. ForDizzanne, from Trinidad and Tobago(T&T), it was the result of working consistently throughout 2015 as a Climate Tracker.
Climate change awareness is growing in the Caribbean and there is a sense of urgency, particularly among young people to engage in climate action. Young people are key stakeholders in the climate movement and Caribbean youth are paying increased attention to issues related to climate change awareness and adaptation. Nevertheless, there are few opportunities that are readily accessible to youth from the region to participate in these international meetings. This year the Caribbean Youth Environment Network (CYEN) attending COP21 had eleven members, coming from Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, Haiti, T&T, and St. Lucia.
(Barbados President delivers speech at COP21)
The atmosphere at COP21 was charged with expectation, enthusiasm and in some cases, tension. Having had my attendance sponsored by UN Women Caribbean, I had my gender lens on and was particularly interested in the participation of women at the COP. The disparity in the number of women and men, particularly on official delegations was quickly evident. Likewise the number of young female participants from the Global South was noted.
Voicing concerns at gender meetings during the COP, it was pivotal to emphasise the importance of having women from the South get equal chance to share their stories of vulnerability and resilience to climate change. Women from developing countries come face to face with the nexus between climate change and gender issues on a first-hand basis, touching everything: from health and agriculture to sanitation and education. They are oftentimes highly dependant on the land and water resources for survival and are left in insecure positions. Climate change is not just an environmental issue, but links to social justice, equity, and human rights – all of which have gender elements.
I was even more heartened by the chance to spend time in the company of some of the women from the Caribbean who are renowned for their contribution to the movement, Dessima Williams, Flavia Cherry and Mariama Williams just to name a few. As a group, women were bold and active in their actions at COP and were unwavering in their calls for the inclusion of loss and damage, gender-responsiveness and human rights.
At the official level, Ambassadors Claudia Salerno Caldera from Venezuela and Joyce Diseko from South Africa, were especially vocal in their criticisms of the process and the latter has been widely applauded for being instrumental in the overall success of the negotiations.
This was my first time attending COP. Although I had been following the UNFCCC process for years, nothing prepared me for the reality. The enormity of it all hit me that first day as I entered Le Bourget, where the world changing decisions were made. Like my peers, I was committed to doing all I could to pressure negotiators through my writing to keep ambition high, to ensure that the Paris outcome addressed issues critical to the survival of people in developing countries; people who are contributing least to climate change. Tracking the Association Of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) perspectives, two groups representing developing countries, it was clear that the critical areas included climate finance for adaptation and mitigation, loss and damage, the 1.5 degree goal, and special recognition for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Developing countries worked hard to push for these matters to be stated strongly and clearly in the final agreement.
(Havana, Cuba, after heavy rainfalls)
Game face on, the Climate Trackers (hailing from The Philippines, India, Germany, Belgium, Sudan, Madagascar, Costa Rica, Ghana, the United States, Argentina, Colombia, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Bangladesh and Australia) made the media center their army base and the computer area the barracks as the negotiations reached its heights. Between us, we produced over four hundred articles for the duration of the conference, pushing hard to ensure climate change was on the tongues of citizens back home.
Despite the general approval of the final agreement, some stakeholders in the region were not entirely pleased with the final output. Some Caribbean governments applauded the mention of the 1.5 temperature limit while others regarded it as merely tokenistic noting that the world was still on track for close to 3 degree warming which would prove to be devastating for life on Earth.
A Trinidadian and a Jamaican walked into a bar…or in this case COP21, that’s how the joke begins, right?
However, this is not a joke. The future generations depend on us taking the Paris agreement seriously. COP21 showed that young people are resourceful, committed, and want to be allies in the global climate change movement. This needs to be harnessed by governments going forward. Young people will be in the implementers of tomorrow, so they need to be included now.