Coastal Zone Management Unit (CZMU) Director Dr. Leo Brewster leads the Global Americans delegation on a tour of the Rockley Coastal Improvement project.
From March 12-17, I had the privilege of representing Global Americans alongside our president, Guy Mentel, in Bridgetown, Barbados. Our main goal on the trip was to share and normalize the findings of the Global Americans High-Level Working Group on Climate Change in the Caribbean. We met with Barbados government officials, U.S. government representatives, multilateral development institutions, academics, private enterprises, and civil society actors on the ground. Traveling to Barbados—interacting with people, listening to challenges, and learning about hopes for the future—made a resounding impact on me and highlighted just how important the work we do to combat climate change is.
Climate change will affect us all, but some places—like Barbados—will experience its impacts sooner and more acutely than others. In fact, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres dubbed the Caribbean as “ground zero” for the global climate emergency. Everyone we met acknowledged the looming climate threat, but each had their own perspectives on what could and should be done to move the country and, ultimately, other countries in the right direction in the fight against climate change.
Barbadians—or “Bajans,” as they colloquially refer to themselves—are both incredibly resilient and self-reliant, as well as earnestly collaborative and multilateral. Perhaps this attitude can best be encapsulated by Barbados’ first prime minister, Errol Barrow, who surmised his foreign policy as “Friends of all, satellites of none.” Barrow’s famous declaration is still top of mind for many Bajans, who would repeat Barrow’s words and remind us of the country’s historical and contemporary willingness to engage with diverse actors from across the Global North and the Global South. The newly-launched logistics hub—a collaborative effort funded in part by the Government of Canada, the European Union, and the USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance and coordinated by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), and the Government of Barbados—showcases how Barbados engages with regional organizations and nations from the Global North to address the climate crisis. At the same time, the fact that Barbados led and hosted the first CARICOM-Africa Summit shows a salient example of South-South cooperation. Though Barrow’s legacy is larger than life on the island, in recent years, Prime Minister Mia Mottley has captivated national and international attention to an extent that would surely make even the nation’s founding father proud.
Led by Mottley and promulgated by the Bridgetown Initiative, Barbados has boldly called for a range of reforms to the international financial system. The Bridgetown Initiative calls for three simple steps to improve emergency liquidity, expand multilateral lending, and free up capital for climate-related mitigation and reconstruction measures. If implemented, this plan would provide the governments of small island states—like Barbados—the breathing room to access needed funds to survive in a warming world. Crucially, officials on the ground acknowledged that the specific steps outlined in the initiative are not gospel. Instead, the document speaks to the immense scale of the climate finance challenge and provides recommendations for how to address this challenge. Given the influence that the United States has with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, diverse actors—including Prime Minister Mottley—have encouraged U.S. officials to act decisively to provide all countries the chance to strengthen their resilience and adapt to the effects of climate change.
From left to right: Senior Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kerrie Symmonds, Prime Minister Mia Mottley, Author Jackson Mihm, and Global Americans President Guy Mentel. Photo Credit: Alex Downes.
Improved access to funding is crucial given how we observed that climate change already represents an everyday reality for Caribbean countries—a reality that national governments are facing and addressing at the local level. Barbadian Minister of Agriculture and Food Security Indar Weir told us how Barbados is working to improve relationships with U.S. land-grant universities to incorporate innovative strategies—like heat-resilient seeds—into their arsenal in the fight to build resilience. Though these measures are certainly a priority for the country, most actors we met with agreed that sea-level rise and storm surges represented the most acute climate threat to the nation. To protect Barbados’ commercially-significant west and south coasts, the Coastal Zone Management Unit (CZMU) monitors and manages a series of headlands, underwater breakwaters, and cliffs along multiple project sites and beaches. Today, the general public and private businesses alike benefit from their efforts to protect public roads and halt shoreline erosion. In addition to these indispensable efforts, CZMU Director Dr. Leo Brewster noted that the CZMU’s next horizon is to combat rising sargassum deposits and coral bleaching events. These growing, climate-related phenomena threaten to undercut the country’s most significant industry: tourism which represents at least a third of the country’s formal GDP. The country’s focus on climate change—from multiple angles—highlights how it is lamentably both an ever-present and existential threat. Though those temporarily calling the island their home and I can empathize with this sentiment to varying degrees, our governing structures have yet to focus on climate to such an extent.
U.S. and Multilateral Perspectives
As the largest economy in the Eastern Caribbean, Barbados is often viewed by outsiders as a leader in the region and as such many U.S. and multilateral organizations have offices on the island. U.S. engagement largely stems from two long-running programs: the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI). These two initiatives continue to address two critical regional issues—development and security. Both U.S. and Caribbean actors acknowledged that the Reagan-era legislation is still appreciated, but in dire need of a twenty-first-century overhaul to account for climate change and other concerns. To this end, last year Vice-President Harris notably launched the U.S.-Caribbean Partnership to Address the Climate Crisis (PACC) 2030, which offers a strong climate policy framework. However, during our meetings on the ground, stakeholders emphasized Washington needs to work toward stronger coordination and implementation of these encouraging measures.
Global Americans meeting with core sections of the U.S. Embassy and USAID teams in Bridgetown.
U.S. and multilateral institutions offer both loans and grants for infrastructure projects as well as training and capacity building for domestic institutions. Both sets of actors expressed a desire to ramp up financial support but lamented the limitations of their respective institutional frameworks and the capacity of some sectors to adequately implement projects. Codified legislation, similar to the CBI and CBSI—with a focus on aiding regional adaptation measures—represents the most promising path toward sustained action. To ramp up buy-in, the actors we met with suggested that elected officials—particularly representatives from executive and legislative branches—visit the region and engage at summits with Caribbean leaders at a peer-to-peer level more frequently.
After a week I will never forget, last Tuesday, I was reminded by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) what is at stake. Given the current rates at which humans burn coal, oil, and natural gas, scientists expect global temperatures to exceed the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree-warming benchmark by the middle of the next decade—making the impacts of extreme weather events significantly harder for humanity to handle. Though policy changes are often incremental, the scale of the potential climate fallout deserves our unceasing attention. While Barbados and other Caribbean nations are constantly reminded of the fight against climate change, a similar, unwavering focus from U.S. policymakers and their partners is essential because, ultimately, it will affect us all. Efforts to understand the implications of climate change in the Caribbean and beyond are crucial, but action is even better. After visiting, I am convinced that large countries and multilateral institutions need to heed Barbados’ calls and act boldly on climate change now.
Learn more about Global Americans’ ongoing work on Climate Change in the Caribbean.
Jackson Mihm is an Associate Editor at Global Americans and the Project Lead for the organization’s High-Level Working Group on Climate Change in the Caribbean. He wishes to extend a special thanks to the project’s High-level Working Group and specifically Co-Chairs Ambassador Liz Thompson and Dame Billie Miller for their generous support to our delegation.