28 February 2020 – This article was first published in Thomas Reuters Foundation.
The tranquil waters and palm-lined beaches in Barbados mask a rising threat. That this same water can engulf and endanger all if ample action is not taken.
Barbados technically lies within the hurricane belt but fortunately, no major storms have passed through it in more than 60 years.
Research shows climate-related disasters are striking places where no such events have been seen since satellites were first used in weather forecasting in the 1960s. For instance, Barbados is experiencing unusual weather patterns such as less rainfall and prolonged droughts.
Changes in weather are also posing critical economic threats to Barbados. Its $500 million tourism industry is at risk with visitors likely to face hot weather, warmer and more acidic water and damaged beaches.
Barbados acutely understands the looming threats of climate change. The country of some 285,000 people is taking all measures to tackle climate change. Among those is an initiative to plant one million trees on its total land area of 166 square miles. The purpose is to build resilience, sustainability and food security against the current and pending effects of climate change.
But the initiative to deal with climate change is now itself threatened by the spiralling effects of global warming. Barbados is experiencing its worst dry season in 50 years.
On a visit to the island this month, I accompanied Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland to the botanical gardens where she planted a baobab tree to promote the tree-planting initiative.
The sun beat down and the earth was dry and crusty, symptomatic of a larger ecological change at play. In the same field, trees planted by leaders like Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Motley and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta blossomed in a tropical breeze.
Shovelling the dry soil, Patricia Scotland reflected that the baobab tree is known as the upside-down tree. Deeply rooted in African folklore, it is seen as a symbol of life in harsh and unforgiving environments, its shade providing shelter for generations to come.
In her words: “Everyone who asks what I can do to act on climate change. The answer is simple, go out, plant a tree and look after it. We cannot solve the climate crisis just by planting but this is an easy way to begin saving our planet.”
Just beside Patricia Scotland, Minister Prescod planted a mahogany tree. With smart black shoes caked in dust, he hopes to double the one million-tree target despite the challenges.
Research shows that a major global tree-planting programme could absorb two-thirds of all carbon emissions that human activities have pumped into the atmosphere.
Without a doubt, trees are among the world’s best defences against the effects of climate change; they reduce flood risks, improve air quality, and absorb and store carbon dioxide, which is a major contributor to global warming.
Several Commonwealth countries are encouraging tree-planting. In 2017, about 1.5 million Indian volunteers planted some 66 million trees in 12 hours in Madhya Pradesh. Kenya recently launched the ‘Green Kenya Initiative’ to regain its declining forest cover.
The Commonwealth is now drafting a Living Lands Charter to mainstream climate resilience into five key areas in line with article 5 of the Paris Agreement – agriculture and food security, water, forests and biodiversity, livestock and indigenous knowledge.
Commonwealth leaders will consider the charter at their biennial summit in Kigali this June. If endorsed, it will help protect and manage a quarter of the world’s landmass that makes up the Commonwealth.
The world simply cannot afford to keep losing an area of forest the size of New Zealand every year. Any delay in implementing the Paris agreement means the drastic effects of global warming will make climate action even harder.
It is not just about a small island state in the Caribbean, it is about all of us, the rich and the poor and the big and the small.
People are not islands, alone and adrift in the world, we are all connected and in that collective connection lies our strength.
As the secretary-general said, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” It is about time we see what we can add rather what we can take from this world.
© Commonwealth Secretariat 2021