The warnings from scientists have been clear and the urgency of international calls has intensified: climate change is real, and the world must act.
For low-lying island communities like the Cayman Islands, the outlook is especially alarming. The Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels will not be enough to for small island nations. These will be – and are – the first places to feel the impact of sea-level rise, warming oceans and intensified storms. For island states especially, the goal is ‘1.5 to stay alive’ – in other words, restricting global warming, through international efforts and reduced carbon emissions, to below 1.5 degrees C.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that warming above 1.5 degrees C will disproportionately affect coastal communities. The faster the warming, the United Nations panel advises, the more difficult it will be for small islands ecosystems to adapt.
“Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C,” the IPCC writes.
“Some vulnerable regions, including small islands and Least Developed Countries, are projected to experience high multiple interrelated climate risks even at global warming of 1.5°C.”
So, with the urgency of the projections, where does Cayman stand in preparing for climate change?
No enacted policy
Recent debate on the floor of the Legislative Assembly sent a reminder that, in fact, Cayman does not have a climate change policy, despite past efforts. The only enacted policy that gives mention to climate change in Cayman is the National Energy Policy, which seeks to limit per capita carbon emissions to 2014 levels and achieve 70% renewable energy in Cayman by 2037.
The National Energy Policy, which falls under the remit of Minister Joseph Hew, has been the driver for much of Cayman’s climate-driven initiatives to date – such as incentives for the importation of electric vehicles.
In a private members’ motion by Alva Suckoo on 31 Jan., the member for Newlands urged lawmakers to take additional steps, including formation of a climate change working group, greater participation in regional and global organisations focussed on climate change, engagement with the private sector, and inclusion of climate change in the primary school curriculum.
Suckoo is not the first decision-maker in Cayman to push the topic of climate change, but he is one of the few elected members in recent years to revisit the topic on the floor of the Legislative Assembly.
As Minister of Environment Dwayne Seymour pointed out that day, it has now been nearly a decade since Cayman established a draft climate change policy and then left it to collect dust.
“Unfortunately, this policy was never advanced for adoption by the government. Given the time that has passed since that draft policy was produced, this draft policy now needs to be updated,” Seymour said.
Many of the suggestions put forward by MLA Suckoo, in fact, were already outlined in the 2011 draft policy, ‘Achieving a Low Carbon Climate-Resilient Economy’, established by the Cayman’s National Climate Change Committee and supported by international and regional partners.
In 2007, the United Kingdom funded a four-year programme in its Caribbean overseas territories called ‘Enhancing Capacity for Adaptation to Climate Change’. The initiative, implemented by the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre based in Belize, aimed to support the Cayman Islands, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, and Turks and Caicos in building climate resilience.
The project had four main objectives:
- Establishment of national climate change committees in each territory,
- Development of public education and outreach campaigns,
- Completion of a vulnerability assessment, and
- Development of a climate change policy.
By the end of the programme in 2011, a National Climate Change Committee in Cayman had established the draft policy. The plan never passed Cabinet, however, and remains in the draft phase.
Unlike the British Virgin Islands, for example, Cayman never took the next steps of establishing a funding mechanism and putting the policy recommendations into motion, explained climate change consultant Lisa Ann Hurlston, chair of the National Conservation Council’s Climate Change Committee.
“Like many small islands, Cayman suffers from policy implementation deficit disorder. We spend so much time and money formulating policy, only to shoot ourselves in the foot by having no or poorly conceived implementation plans, lack of funding for implementation or lack of focus (political will), which delays implementation,” Hurlston said in an email.
“The [climate change policy] proposed a council to oversee the policy’s implementation, evaluation and review, to ensure the full policy cycle was iterative, as well as to ensure mechanisms for its funding. … This, of course, was never done.”
Minister Hew said his ministry is currently leading discussions with government to develop ‘Plan Cayman’, which he hopes will address many of the concerns about climate change, such as sea-level rise and building setbacks.
On an international level, Cayman participates in climate change agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change through the United Kingdom. Hurlston is not satisfied, however, that the guidance from the UK to its overseas territories has been sufficient.
“No serious obligations have been placed on us by the UK,” Hurlston said.
“In my opinion … the UK’s assistance to the Cayman Islands has diminished since the Department for Energy and Climate Change became part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in July 2016.
“However, even during my time at [Department of Environment] administering the climate treaties early on, assistance was not readily forthcoming or only on the UK’s timeframe and matters of priority to them.”
The state of Cayman’s climate initiatives has Hurlston and other stakeholders concerned that the islands are unprepared.
“Cayman is definitely behind in building physical resilience to natural coastal hazards and is, in fact, going in the wrong direction. The [Central Planning Authority] continues to consider and even permit coastal construction setback variances, especially on sandy beaches,” Hurlston said.
“We know that severe weather events will be more frequent and more extreme, therefore the envelope of water and incursion from storm waves will be larger, inundating more area, increasing property damage and potentially risking more loss of life.”
The National Trust for the Cayman Islands has urged government to take climate change more seriously. Director Nadia Hardie warned that the effects are already being felt across the region from sea-level rise, extreme weather activity and the spread of vector-borne illnesses, such as dengue.
“One only has to take a look at the National Planning Framework to see that climate change is not being taken properly into consideration. Where are the increased setbacks? Are we looking at flooding measures, stricter building codes? Cayman needs to take the appropriate measures now to avoid devastating consequences in the medium to long term,” Hardie said.
“There needs to be proper consultation across all departments and ministries, and with key stakeholders and the public for general awareness.”
In contrast, the National Trust applauded Nancy Barnard for facilitating a health and climate change seminar in June 2019 with the Pan American Health Organization for Cayman’s Ministry of Environment, Health, Culture and Housing.
“It was the first such time many heard about the potential devastating effects that could occur in Cayman,” the National Trust said.
Hurlston also acknowledged that the Department of Environment, Department of Agriculture, Ministry of Environment and National Weather Service have continued to attend climate-related workshops since the time of the UK-Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre project.
But those are small steps compared to the enormity of the task at hand.
“We are definitely behind schedule, but it’s not too late. Decisive action needs to be taken now and not just lip service,” Hardie said.
“Policies need to be enacted and enforced.”