“Trickle-down” climate policy - in the Green New Deal won’t save the Bahamas or our drowning islands
It’s been almost one week since hurricane Dorian rested fixed over The Bahamas causing untold damage to people’s lives, still an unknown number of deaths and completely transformed this multi-island Caribbean nation. The Bahamas will never be the same. But these types of storms are becoming a common occurrence, having similarly devastated Antigua and Barbuda, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Dominica just two years ago. I recall communicating with a colleague who was working in the US Virgin Islands around the time of Maria. She and her colleagues were reeling after the hurricane’s passage as her office building was severely damaged. Virgin Islanders had to cope with and manage in very trying circumstances as some basic services and systems were in disarray in the aftermath of Maria.
Apart from much needed out pours of charity, outrage and support after such calamitous, mind-boggling events, there remains no permanent, ready mechanism to support island societies and developing countries after intense natural events, territories destined to continue to suffer immensely from these disasters.
In 2018, I spent several months in Haiti working with authorities and communities on climate policy and learning about their experience after disasters. Haitians and other island nations are resilient, but after successive disasters, one wonders how much more these developing countries could face before churning out droves of climate refugees. In fact, this appears to be already happening with Bahamians fleeing and meeting resistance and arbitrary rules from US border authorities in the face of their entire ecosystems and societies' existential collapse.
While climate movements and recent political debates about the Green New Deal and climate crisis in the US and international media show some signs of hope, they lack transnational connections with people in regions of the world especially the Global South reeling from such calamity. There are echoes of imperialism and paternalism in current Green New Deal proposals and discussions.
Two weeks ago, front-runners in the US Democratic primary, many of whom support a version of a Green New Deal in the United States, shared their views about the climate crisis. Their domestic plans to stem the scourge appear uncoordinated, using various timelines, some even inconsistent with the UN’s Framework on Climate Change and the International Panel on Climate Change. What was noticeable is that these proposals almost completely ignored the ever present realities of people in island and developing countries who face the brunt of the worst effects of the climate crisis. Clearly, these plans are in response to Trump’s climate denialism and atrocious record on climate change at a domestic level. But they do not discard his nationalism that has been made a hallmark of his Presidency.
The US up until recently was the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions as the richest capitalist country in the world. It is now in second position to China. Democrats' utterances however are nothing short of a trickle-down climate policy, where if greenhouse emissions are reduced in the US and policies in place to address the fallout at home, the benefits will automatically spill over to other regions and places. Plans appear to adopt a nationalist outlook of the climate crisis while almost neglecting the effects that massive industrialization in the US has had over decades on other regions. While Bernie Sanders' plan appears the most ambitious and the only one to incorporate certain foreign policy aspects, his multilateral proposals depend on already broken, antidemocratic and ineffective global structures like the Green Climate Fund.
In Haiti, I worked on supporting Haiti to access the Green Climate Fund program. From that experience, I learned that impediments abound; the Fund has onerous requirements for impoverished, vulnerable developing nations to access the finance provided through the UN mechanism needed to adapt to a fast-changing climate. Not to mention it is biased in favour of private capital. If the current narrowness in approach persists, the Green New Deal proposal would not get to the heart of the climate crisis that disproportionately affects large swathes of land, livelihoods and people around the world.
Moreover, Elizabeth’s Warren’s "green industrial revolution" articulates generating green jobs for American workers, seemingly at the expense of the rest of the world. These ideas adopt an already exceptionalist and imperialist outlook of the climate crisis. Multilateral systems of finance, investment, technology, corporate behavior, environmental standards, support systems, policy forums, and diplomacy all need urgent restructuring and greater attention if any progress is to be made.
Not only is the language of the Green New Deal adorned in nationalistic rhetoric, but the climate movements and strikes that have arisen in the United States and Europe also seem similarly parochial. The climate crisis is global in nature and requires a global response and recognition of the US’s principal responsibilities and contribution. One thing we must first acknowledge is that the Paris Agreement at this stage now seems outdated based on recent revelations and analyses of the IPCC 2018.
For the Green New Deal to shake off its imperialist tendencies, it must look to pattern its proposals not as an inward-looking policy. This approach may lead to further seen and unseen exploitation of other countries, like Chile which possesses large lithium deposits critical for electric vehicles. Climate policy must be a progressive, all-embracing paragon of equality and democratic engagement with the rest of the world on its own terms. It is then that we might be able to help tackle this problem together by reaffirming egalitarian virtues, encouraging open-mindedness, and respecting ideas and experiences from abroad. Even as we in the islands suffer the most from a problem that the US has had a fundamental role in creating, we must also urge that it takes responsibility in more nuanced and equitable manner.