This piece originally appeared in The Nassau Guardian on June 18, 2021.
President Biden has made climate change a priority for his administration and wasted no time in letting the world know that he is focused on doing something about it.
The White House’s international conference on climate change was a first important step in that process. While much of the emphasis has been on dealing with nations like China, India and Russia, developing nations, including smaller nations, need to be part of the solution.
As the president rightly said at the April conference, “In the spirit of increasing efforts to address climate change globally, we’re launching an initiative to help developing countries strengthen their climate efforts while achieving their development goals.”
The Bahamas, which is only 50 miles off the US at its closest point, should be a focus and example for the administration as it develops the initiative the president mentioned.
While by some measures The Bahamas is not a developing nation, if one goes beyond Nassau, the Bahamian capital, it is clear that much of The Bahamas is part of the developing world, and should, therefore, have the bilateral and international support that developing nations have access to if it is to make progress on climate change.
The issues facing The Bahamas are not as central to the climate change debate as reducing the global carbon footprint but they are part of the complicated and comprehensive challenge of climate change.
Not surprisingly, making sure that marine areas are protected and sustained is an important part of The Bahamas’ environmental profile.
The international environmental Conference of Parties (COP) 7 in 2004 paid particular attention to protected marine areas.
An excellent report by The Bahamas Protected Marine Areas Network discusses in some detail work that needs to be done by the Bahamian government, the private sector and civil society to protect The Bahamas marine environment.
As the report points out, the Bahamian government signed on to the Caribbean Challenge Initiative, tied to COP7 efforts, which commits “to effectively conserve at least 20 percent of the near-shore marine resources across The Bahamas by 2020”.
As President Biden’s Special Climate Envoy, John Kerry, recently said, “…solving climate change and saving the oceans is in fact the challenge of our time…”
The Bahamas is a beautiful archipelago with pristine marine surroundings that need to be preserved.
For example, an important problem for Bahamians and many small islands is what to do about waste management.
As an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) article points out, “Finding an adequate solid waste disposal mechanism is a challenge for most countries in the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region.”
Fires that are common with landfills create hazardous environmental conditions for nearby communities. The IDB article goes on to say, “It goes without saying that the appropriate disposal of waste is critical to prolonged health and well-being for all citizens.”
Having a sufficient energy supply is a threshold issue for all nations, large and small, and The Bahamas is no exception. Renewables are clearly the way of the future, wind and solar in particular.
Unfortunately, recent oil exploration in The Bahamas would have undermined the effort to use renewables as the primary energy source. The good news is the “Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC) announced … that its exploratory well, which it started drilling on December 20, 90 miles off the west coast of Andros, had failed to show the availability of oil in commercial quantities. BPC said drilling has now ceased (in the well) and the well will now be permanently plugged and abandoned.”
A primary reason for the oil drilling was to create jobs and economic development. Hurricane Dorian, which devastated The Bahamas in 2019, and the pandemic, have had a dramatic impact on the economy. Focusing on environmentally friendly development must be central to recovery efforts. The US governmenxt should structure its outreach efforts to The Bahamas with this in mind.
Some US trade agreements have environmental provisions. The US should consider doing something similar by having compacts or agreements with nations like The Bahamas that would structure assistance, financial and technical, around certain environmental conditions being met.
Funding from USAID and the Development Finance Corporation could provide access to resources to be used for protecting marine resources and waste management. This combination of grants and loans, and facilitating private sector development, could tie job creation to environmentally sound growth.
There should also be a concerted effort to reach out to Bahamian civil society, which has an active and effective environmental community. Consideration should be given to developing ecotourism as a source of jobs, economic growth and protecting the environment.
In combination with bilateral efforts, the US government should work with international organizations like the World Bank Group (WBG) and IDB. These institutions are committed to responding to the climate change crisis, and their resources can leverage US bilateral assistance.
In addition, they can deal with governance issues to ensure that resources to the Bahamian government are properly used, and unnecessary barriers to working with civil society and the private sector are eliminated to enable all parties to respond effectively to environmental concerns.
Finally, the US government can use The Bahamas as an example of its global commitment to respond to all the challenges of climate change. This will help build confidence that the US sees climate change as a problem for all nations and, hopefully, will engender an increased commitment from smaller and developing nations to be part of the international effort to deal with climate change.
The US has not had an ambassador to The Bahamas for over a decade. That certainly sends the wrong signal on the importance of the bilateral relationship.
Not only does there need to be a US ambassador in Nassau, but that person should be committed to working with the Bahamian government on a robust environmental program. All of these steps can be part of the administration’s effort to make a difference on an existential domestic and international crisis.
• Patrick Griffin is a professor at American University, worked as an assistant to President Clinton and, among other things, was secretary to the Democratic Conference in the US Senate, an elected official.
• William Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School and worked on national security issues for the Clinton and Obama Administration, as well as on Capitol Hill.