Building towards climate resilience in the Caribbean

  • October 15, 2021

Climate & Catastrophe

The climate crisis is posing an existential threat to the Caribbean — labor unions have a crucial role to play in preventing and preparing for impending disasters.

Devastation in the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, October 11, 2019. Anya Douglas /

This essay is published in collaboration with Public Services International

In 2017, Hurricane Maria raged across the Caribbean island of Dominica, leaving 31 people dead with many more still missing to this day. When the hurricane had passed, island residents were left to contend with widespread infrastructural damage and economic instability. Life as Dominicans knew it, would never be the same again.

In the wake of the disaster, the government of Dominica developed the Climate Resilience Execution Agency for Dominica (CREAD) to coordinate all reconstruction work and to ensure all reconstruction activities were focused on the country’s Climate Resilient Recovery Plan. But despite the urgency of the initiative, it was met with little enthusiasm from the country’s public servants. Their hesitancy stemmed from inadequate efforts by the government to consult with the trade unions during the conceptualization phases of the disaster response and resiliency planning. One year after Hurricane Maria, Dominica’s prime minister was still pleading with them to support CREAD.

Even though strategic planning is a significant step in the right direction, the lack of trust between the government and the trade unions in Dominica resulted in the latter’s reluctance to support the climate resilience policy and framework because they had no guarantee that workers’ rights were given due consideration. One could posit that Prime Minister Skerrit would not have to beg public service workers to support the initiative if the unions were involved in the ideation and prototyping stages. Why try to secure buy-in after the intervention is decided?

Across the Caribbean region, public service workers coordinate and facilitate disaster preparedness initiatives and mobilize to respond in times of crises despite many challenges and a general lack of support. As the impact of climate change worsens, it is imperative that the people who deliver the services are included in the development of the solutions aimed at disaster management and climate change resilience.

Public service workers against climate change

Unions collectively represent large swathes of the population. The dual role of the worker as both labor rights advocate and community member present two distinct motives for individual workers to engage in climate action and advocacy. Public service workers are well-positioned to act as climate justice advocates due to their jobs as service providers and rights guarantors on the one hand, and as influential political stakeholders on the other. Climate change is one of the biggest threats to human existence and there can be no climate resilience without the support of public services. If public service workers are equipped with the necessary tools, they can significantly elevate efforts towards climate resilience in the Caribbean, as they have done historically for race and class justice and as they are currently doing for women’s rights.

Climate change is and has been a silent and slow disruptor of Caribbean societies and economies. Regional and international scientists have called Code Red after assessment of the planet’s biosphere. The latest IPCC report Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis has confirmed that with every degree increase in global temperature the impacts of the climate extremes on the ground worsens. Two Caribbean climate scientists, Prof Taylor and Dr. Tannecia Stephenson emphasized one of the key findings of the report: “the Caribbean is projected to experience an increase in frequency and/or severity of agricultural and ecological droughts,” further hampering the ability of already water-stressed Small Island Developing States to meet the needs of their population. Both climate scientists also offered a statement to the Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner in response to the most recent IPCC report: “Does the region have collective positions on mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage? Is it making that position known to the world and its own citizens? Is everybody aware of what they can do? The stark message to the region is that everybody has to be part of the solution!”

The climate change discussion in the Caribbean is ongoing, but it is not met with sufficient political action. There is no regional plan for mitigation, adaptation or loss and damage beyond the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility, a regional disaster risk financing instrument. While the CCRIF can assist with recovery of infrastructure, it cannot bring back land lost to sea level rise or lives lost to weather related disasters.

In this context, Public Services International (PSI) has been meeting and educating trade unions in the region about the damaging effects of global warming and the amount and types of organizing required to reverse this trend. Reflecting on their work, Jillian Bartlett, trade union leader from Trinidad and Tobago and member of the World Women’s Committee (WOC) of PSI explained that, “We sensitize [unions] about the rising sea levels and how that is an important issue for Caribbean nations, especially as Small Island Developing States.”

“There has been increased activity in terms of disasters caused by global warming,” Bartlett continued. “So, for Caribbean countries, the issue of climate change is as important as the air that we breathe. It’s important that action is taken, or else we run the risk that one day the island that we live on might become a grain of sand.”

Addressing a lack of political will

Public sectors are at the core of national disaster responses. Public sector workers need to be centered in the strategic planning process on disaster management and Caribbean countries need to act as if the region is in the midst of an ongoing crisis — because we are.

In October 2018, Trinidad and Tobago experienced torrential rainfall for three days resulting in the worst floods the country experienced in decades. Drone imagery of the island showed floodwater surrounded houses and blocking roadways spanning whole communities in East and Central Trinidad. On-the-ground footage showed residents in boats bravely rescuing fellow residents trapped in their homes. The record-breaking rainfall and the subsequent floods were the worst residents have ever seen in that area. The Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Office reported 10 inches of rain in some places; the largest rainfall event since 1946.

For every year since 2018, Trinidad has suffered serious floods, including in August this year, when communities in central and south Trinidad were inundated with floodwater. Every time a natural event turns disastrous several public service agencies are spurred into action as fellow workers and their communities are left in dire straits dealing with the consequences that could be mitigated against or avoided altogether. If the frequency of these events is steadily increasing but local and central governments are not increasing capacity to coordinate on a larger scale and resources to fund operations more often, the multisectoral rollout of services will continue to be unsatisfactory.

The October 2018 floodings are an example of the conditions created by austerity measures and government neglect. A 2020 parliamentary inquiry into flood alleviation concluded that problems like budget cuts to important flood alleviation initiatives and the lack of a formal coordination framework have impeded local disaster management efforts. It is at this point that unions are best positioned in their role as representatives of first responders at the collective bargaining table to inspire the political will to focus money and time on mitigation, adaptation measures and strategic planning.

Climate change is a vast problem that regional governments are contending with and somehow not a single political regime is responding appropriately to this crisis. The urgency might be there, but there is inadequate consultation. They might hold consultations or hold inquiries but then they do not act with the requisite urgency. According to Patrick Yarde, president of the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU, a PSI affiliate) the Guyanese government has not shown an appreciation for the far-reaching impacts of climate change in the country. Meanwhile, in Jamaica, the Jamaica Association of Local Government Officers (JALGO, another PSI affiliate) and other local advocates are defending water as a public good in direct contravention to the Jamaican government moves to privatize it, palming off a logistical and financial problem onto the citizens.

Inaction, inadvertence and ignorance continues while the economic and ecological bill racks up. According to the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCC) annual costs of inaction could total $10.7 billion by 2025, $22 billion by 2050 and $46 billion by 2100, representing 5 percent, 10 percent and 22 percent of the region’s GDP, respectively. In addition to that, sea level rise is set to reduce land size by as much as 5 percent in some islands, displacing thousands of people, affecting 35 ports and disrupting coastal towns and cities that depend on the tourism industry. Our small economies and valuable ecologies and cultures simply cannot afford the cost of inaction.

Trade Union action in the region

In Trinidad and Tobago, sanitation workers have been connecting the dots between labor rights, public health and environmental justice. After a first round of actions in 2016, the sanitation workers united in the Industrial General Sanitation Workers Union (IGSWU) took to the streets in protest once again in 2019. Their demands were not only concerned with safer working conditions and fair remuneration for their work, but also focused on the health and safety of marginalized communities living around garbage disposal sites and included calls for global environmental justice.

Their work incorporates public engagements on climate change and labor in the media, at panel discussions held by NGOs and through collective bargaining and strike action. Whereas the sanitation workers see a clear connection between their work, conditions of public health and how these are impacted by climate change, the authorities thus far have refused to acknowledge any of it.

JALGO has also been working on inspiring changes in Jamaica through community-oriented activities. The union teamed up with the NGO Solar Head of State to promote green energy use on the island. The NGO hosted a competition for Jamaican pupils, challenging them to think seriously about solar energy and inviting them to be active co-creators of a greener environment within their schools and societies.

Public servants across the region are struggling on the front lines of the climate emergency every day, but without a democratic consultation process that includes their voices and demands in decision-making processes and adequate investment of resources — skills, tools, humans and money — change will be difficult. The critical question remains what ideas can elevate the work already being done by the unions?

Coalitions against climate crimes

While the trade unions are a force to be reckoned with and are well-positioned to intervene in government policy on climate change, partnering with other civil society organizations can expand the reach and increase the impact of their efforts substantially. For example, in Trinidad and Tobago, citizen journalists have been documenting and explaining environmental rights violations through a European Union-funded coalition of more than 20 organizations working with the Cropper Foundation and the Lloyd Best Institute towards increasing capacity to hold the extractive industries accountable.

The Cari-Bois Environmental News Network has reported many issues related to climate change and the extractive industry in Trinidad and Tobago. Their focus on storytelling to bring awareness to irresponsible development practices is rooted in African cultural heritage and tradition. Workers can use storytelling as a culturally appropriate channel to promote public health, care for the environment and bring awareness to the struggles workers face. Through an approach like this, unions can leverage the power of mass communication to advocate for workers’ rights which are now inextricably linked to environmental rights.

For the Bahamas, still recovering from Hurricane Dorian — the historically destructive tropical cyclone that struck the island nation in 2017 — new, and potentially even more destructive environmental threats are appearing on the horizon as plans for underwater oil exploration are rolled out by the Bahamas Petroleum Company. An international coalition called Our Island Our Future (OIOF) which includes 150 businesses, environmental groups and tourism advocates has been advocating against the Bahamas Petroleum Company and for a permanent ban on offshore drilling in Bahamian waters.

The coalition is also pursuing a judicial review questioning the lawfulness of granting BPC permission to carry out their oil exploration in Bahamian waters. Strategic litigation, while expensive and time consuming, can be an effective strategy to stall plans for environmentally destructive projects that pose a threat to the climate goals and collective interests of the Caribbean people.

The climate is drastically changing and so is the Caribbean culture and the ways Caribbean people go about national development and changemaking. There is space for creativity, ingenuity and scope in the way unions communicate and the types of strategies that can be employed. Social media is one such tool that can help to make worker struggles amidst the climate emergency relatable and visible to a broad audience. The pool of unionized workers is decreasing due to job cuts, union busting, and anti-union campaigns and as such it is not enough to be organized; unions need to figure out how to attract people, and the digital space offers many opportunities in this regard. This can be done by creating content that the entrepreneurs, the informal workers and underemployed people can relate to. While these workers do not fit into the traditional trade union, they are workers, important stakeholders and they can benefit from a structure that extends protection to them.

Just as harsh economic push factors remove people from the traditional labor force, the trade unions can be restructured to allow these workers to re-enter the labor struggle to ensure their political participation. Currently there are no organizations rallying or directly targeting unorganized workers because of their roles in the informal sector, when this is the exact positionality that makes them vulnerable to the climate crisis and the concomitant socio-economic fall out.

Additionally, similar to the way governments partner with local, regional and international companies to boost their capacity to execute mega projects, unions can partner with other unions and NGOs to boost strategic advocacy efforts increasing the number and diversity of active voices for climate change action and worker’s rights offering analysis and recommendations from different angles. There are already conversations happening at the regional level among various union organizers, but the establishment of a syndicate of diverse but ideologically aligned actors developing positions on climate related issues is yet to happen.

Essentially, having conversations and building communities on a solid ideological foundation can play a significant role in closing the leadership gap on climate change.

Unions for climate resilience

Reflecting on the “dynamism of climate change” and the strategic efforts required to address the intersecting climate and labor related issues in Dominica, Steve Joseph, president of the PSI-affiliated Dominica Public Service Union expressed his hope for continuous education on climate change and climate resilience specifically catering to workers. This way the workers would be able to keep up with the often-complex scientific insights and the varied political and strategic responses of other regional and international unions to inform local advocates working towards the rights of the workers and climate justice.

Responding to the question on what needs to be done to strengthen union capacity to promote climate resilience in the region, Helene Davis White, general secretary of JALGO and president of the Jamaica Trade Union confederation (JCTU), highlighted the importance of establishing connections with key government personnel. She stressed the importance of empowering workers to act and how much potential there is in workers influencing the national climate plans for a change in the approach to climate resilience in Caribbean countries.

This is the union tradition; grassroots information sharing, collective thought and strategic action. If not for that three-step approach, many of the opportunities available to workers would not exist. So now that the region’s very existence hangs in the balance local unions need to continue to do the development work they have been doing, this time zeroing in on the environment with the clinical efficiency and fervor that is customary to the tradition of worker organizing in the region.

The Caribbean is currently dealing with the climate crisis. According to the IPCC, climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying, and the damage done to the ecosystem will soon be irreversible. The consensus is that the global governments need to transition to a net-zero carbon emission future. The problem is that the Caribbean present is already water stressed, flooded and battered by hurricanes. We need strong leadership to weather the storm and manage the scarce resources while attempting to regenerate a new life.

Disaster preparedness, adaptation and mitigation need to be prioritized because lives and livelihoods depend on it. Reacting to the loss and damages has become too expensive and will soon be unaffordable. More importantly, the lives lost can never be recovered. Trade unions are a powerful social movement that — once equipped with the relevant tools — can effectively advocate for climate resilience, as they have done for other ideological struggles historically.

Workers need decision-making power on budgetary allocations, coordination of disaster management services and public education. That way, a just and green transition to regenerative development can be co-constructed and informed by the lived experiences of the workers and their families who have been contending with the impacts of climate change.

In partnership with ROAR, this article has been commissioned by Public Services International (PSI) and supported by Union to Union and Swedish trade unions Akademikerförbundet SSR, Vision and Kommunal under the project “Building Trade Union Capacities and Quality Public Services for a Just Transition to Climate Change.”

Johannah-Rae Reyes

Johannah-Rae Reyes is the Social Media Manager at WOMANTRA. As a Caribbean feminist, sign language interpreter and activist with a Geography degree from the University of the West Indies, she writes and works on political issues faced by marginalized communities across the region.

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