The Glasgow Climate Change Conference will call in leaders from all over the globe to discuss our current climate crisis. For decades, climate activists have been advocating for change for the predicted harmful changes that occur as our planet grows warmer. There has been a surge in voices recently, especially as places like the USA and Australia have been ablaze and other places like Germany experienced historic and disastrous flooding. It seems with more and more disasters striking the West, the more the people in the global north seem to turn their attention towards climate change. As a person from a small developing island state that has been experiencing the effects of climate change for decades, I must ask, why only now?
I am from Trinidad and Tobago, a small twin-island state in the Caribbean. The first time the idea of climate change truly stuck in my mind was when I was just 11 years old. My teacher said that when she was a student at my school in the very same classroom I was in, it was much cooler. My classroom got almost unbearably hot throughout the course of the day, and we would have just two measly electric fans to cool us down. Every teacher would complain about it as they entered. Luckily as the years went by, we got air conditioning units, but why should I have to use that to survive through a day of school? Regardless of that, I still consider Trinbagonians lucky. We are too far down south to experience hurricanes, unlike our other island neighbours. Hurricanes Irma and Dorian are just two recently devastating hurricanes that caused unspeakable devastation to Barbuda and The Bahamas respectively. Hurricanes have long been increasing in frequency and intensity and it has caused millions of dollars of damage and most importantly, the loss of many lives. Considering most islands rely on “sea, sand, sun” tourism for their economies, these constant hits have cost many livelihoods.
I was in a lecture once and we had to look at satellite imagery of Hurricane Harvey. The professor asked, “What is the hurricane hitting?” Horrified at what I was seeing, I said that The Bahamas was being trampled over. The professor looked over to me and said, “Yeah, but we don’t care about places like those. It’s hitting Houston,” while laughing. The continued destruction of the people in my region was seen as a joke, and the focus of the climate conversation was on Houston. Although it was undeniably a tragedy that struck there, a place that my family also lives, it is not lost on me the major difference between those two places. Texas, a predominantly white and rich state in the settler-colonial state of the United States of America, versus The Bahamas, a predominantly Black, small island developing state in the Caribbean.
If we do not hit the target of a 1.5° increase in global temperatures, we will not be around for 2°. Our islands are at risk of being totally submerged underwater and with some of our largest mountains being considered hills in continents, and the majority of our islands competing in size with cities like Calgary, we have nowhere to go. Sea level rise due to glacial ice melt and the expansion of the oceans themselves because of rising temperatures have long been eroding our coastlines, flooding our shores and destroying our coral reefs. If you live on some kind of continent or large landmass, some part of the general area in which you can call home will still be there. We do not have that privilege. We are at risk of becoming climate refugees. Considering how Haitian refugees were treated just this year, it is a very grim future for all of us. We are faced with the drowning of our land, the destruction of our societies and the persecution of our people. People do not care. Entire groups of people can be wiped out? They do not care. We do not have anywhere to go? They do not care. And when we try to enter their countries because we become climate refugees, they do not want us because we are too poor and too Black.
To see the surge in global north voices speaking out about climate change only when they have been affected is a slap in the face. Why does it take personal experience to realize that climate change is actually a threat to your way of life when we have been screaming out for decades? Why is it that people are quick to book their tickets to an all-inclusive resort or cruise in our islands, take up our spaces and be served by our people, but they would not bat an eye at those same people being washed into the ocean by massive floods? Why is it that when we are struck with disaster, we get temporary sympathies instead of renewed calls for global change? Why must it take impassioned speeches from our leaders for you to realise that we exist? All of this is part of a long history of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) always taking the backseat in global discussions that disproportionately affect us even though we make up less than 1% of global carbon emissions.
We have long been advocating for changes in global institutions and climate policies, and have been speaking out through our activism, research, lectures, podcasts and various other forms. The issue has never been who has the capability to speak out. The issue is about whose voices are listened to and whose work is circulated. Unfortunately, those who have the privilege of visibility when speaking out about climate change are mostly white and from the global north. And by no means is the Caribbean the only group of SIDS facing this crisis head-on. The Pacific Islands, islands in the Indian ocean and many others that are neither part of the global north nor are predominantly white face this issue and have long been suffering the consequences. SIDS need to be included in climate change discussions and we need to make meaningful change globally before we no longer exist.