This blog post was co-authored by Dr. Adi Martínez-Román with the University of Puerto Rico Resiliency Law Center.

Islands and their people are more vulnerable to climate impacts than continental jurisdictions. They are more unprotected from climate ravages that are becoming more ferocious. Their vulnerability is related to climate change, but more directly to the effect of human decisions. For this reason it is urgent that their problems be addressed decisively and effectively, and that we do not skimp on resources or strategies to protect their lives and infrastructure.

Under a changing climate, islands are increasingly suffering from hurricanes or typhoons, and are hard-pressed to withstand the damage caused by the winds and storm surges that they bring with them. The amount of drinking water that islands receive in the form of rain is limited by what can be collected in their land base, and the reliability that rain will fall in similar amounts compared with previous years is reduced by global warming. Also, sea-level rise and coastal erosion threaten the wellbeing of people, their communities, and infrastructure. Island flora and fauna are more sensitive to changes in temperature, precipitation, and sea level because their ecosystems have evolved in an isolated way after the separation of the continental masses, and due to the fact that they are on islands, they cannot move to adjacent areas. Although islands are found in all latitudes, such as Australia, Indonesia, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, most are found in tropical latitudes near the equator, where the impact of extreme temperatures is also more marked.

For example, on the Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where about 30,000 people live, a rise in sea level of just 91 centimeters (about 3 feet)—predicted by science based on the global trajectory of emissions of coal—would permanently submerge the atoll. In 2017, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were hit in sequence by hurricanes Irma and María, destroying everything in their path and leaving a trail of misery and death in territories with social, economic and energy infrastructure already in bad shape due to decades of mismanagement and colonialism.

In Guam, Samoa, and the Marianas, elevated ocean temperatures are causing algae that feed coral reefs to abandon them, leaving corals without food and in danger of dying. The way in which these conditions of destruction and risk are addressed will determine the future of their ecosystems and populations.

The proposed Insular Areas Climate Change Act seeks to address the climate crisis in US unincorporated island territories

In October 2020, the Committee on Natural Resources of the House of Representatives announced the creation of the Insular Areas Climate Change Act, a bill whose purpose is to reduce climate impacts in unincorporated island territories. Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Chairman of the Committee, reaffirmed the obligation that Congress has to take action to protect lives and wellbeing in American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. The bill draft, which is in a public comments process, seeks the creation of programs and government agencies focused on the planning, management and implementation of energy resources, scientific research, and the provision of economic resources for the insular unincorporated territories controlled by the US. It is a good starting point and shows congressional commitment to address the climate crisis in the territories.

However, the bill requires mechanisms that help to first, address the true causes of climate vulnerability in island territories; second, to integrate the local knowledge that insular frontline communities already possess and the climate crisis response work that they carry out in the territories; third, promote collaboration between civil society and government entities; and finally, to communicate with transparency in English as well as in Spanish the results of the reports created by the working groups that will implement the law. In particular, we offer the following recommendations to fill these gaps and achieve a bill that truly fulfills its goal of empowering island territories to tackle the climate crisis:

1- Incorporate more precise definitions that reflect both the climatic and political vulnerability of the island territories

The term “territories” includes the unincorporated territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. The unincorporated territories “belong to, but are not part of” the United States, and in them the Constitution does not apply in its entirety (see the Insular Cases on Puerto Rico and the Philippines). This adds a new dimension of climate vulnerability to the territories since they do not have the same constitutional mechanisms that the 50 states of the Union enjoy to request or receive support from the federal government. The bill should refer to the island territories as unincorporated territories, recognize the lack of political power and governance in them, and promote the development of mechanisms that increase their capacity to respond to the climate crisis they face. The bill should codify that the governance and management of the climate crisis is not limited to collaboration between the federal and island governments, that is, that it must include sectors of civil society such as non-governmental and community-based organizations, as well as academics and scientists already embedded in community work, who have broad and deep local knowledge essential to the search for solutions.

2- Integrate local knowledge in formulating solutions

Local knowledge refers to the unique knowledge created by a particular culture or society, and consists of indigenous, traditional or folk knowledge or science. Local knowledge among island communities is instrumental for the production of food and shelter, as well as for regaining control over their lives and well-being following disasters. It is developed and transmitted from generation to generation as an adaptation mechanism in the face of socio-environmental and agroecological challenges. It thrives on cultural values, and is as essential to sustainable development as physical infrastructure and financial capital.

The Insular Areas Climate Change Act should incorporate local actors from the non-governmental sector, grassroots organizations, as well as academics and scientists inserted in community work, who have led the community recovery after recent climatic catastrophes in island territories. The participation of these sectors of civil society in the recovery process is essential to enable climate resilience beyond what federal or territorial government policies could achieve. In particular:

  • The Insular Areas Climate Change Act Must integrate civil society as members and direct consultative bodies to the groups and programs proposed through the project.
  • The study proposed as part of the Act’s comprehensive energy plan must identify energy vulnerability and how it is distributed among the different economic sectors as well as among the population.
  • The proposed Act’s Climate Change Insular Research Grant Program should establish protocols that ensure equitable forms of community collaboration and the development of the working capacity of civil society and existing local networks to manage grants and other resources.
  • The proposed Act’s Energy Star Rebate program should prioritize the inclusion of the most vulnerable groups, support existing local efforts in the territories, and prioritize the direct installation of renewable energy resources.

3- Strengthen the functioning of the Interagency Task Force

  • The proposed Act’s Interagency Task Force must integrate local actors from local government as well as members of non-governmental and other civil society groups, community leaders, grassroots organizations, and academics and scientists who are currently embedded in community work.
  • The tasks to be carried out by the Interagency Task Force should be clearly specified to ensure that they can advance sustainability and resilience goals through the planning, implementation and evaluation of programs.
  • The Interagency Task Force must promote the integration and meaningful participation of local actors in order to promote accountability of the task force’s actions, facilitate governmental and civil society cooperation and integration of local knowledge, and strengthen the task force’s credibility.

4- The comprehensive report must be available to the public

  • The reports prepared by the Interagency Task Force must be available electronically and in print, in both English and Spanish.
  • Specific guidelines on the content of the reports should be listed on the bill.

Clearly, the Insular Areas Climate Change Act proposes far-reaching programs and a substantial investment of resources. The changes we suggest are essential to ensure that resources are invested effectively and promote the resilience of our island communities and their ecosystems. It is counterproductive that the law only requires collaboration between executive governments at the local and federal level, especially when we consider that the island territories suffer serious vulnerabilities related to the lack of political power and governance.

A group of academics and professionals who are experts in the areas of climate change, energy sustainability, and building resilience have raised our concerns with the Committee on Natural Resources of the US House of Representatives. From our organizations—the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Resilience Law Center at the University of Puerto Rico—we advocate for these changes. It is clear to us that, even when island territories have very diverse populations and histories, the inclusion of local actors and prioritization of local knowledge will help balance power and correct the systemic failures that have left our populations so vulnerable and injured. Congress must not miss this opportunity to correct the course of the history of the territories over which it has control.

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