For Jamaica, Climate Change is an Existential Threat

By Maura Mulholland

Jamaica is a country known for its idyllic beaches, iconic music, and tropical resorts, where tourists from around the world flock to escape the problems of daily life. Like other island nations around the glove, however, Jamaica is in serious threat from environmental changes brought on by climate change.  

Jamaica is an immensely rural nation, and much of its population is dependent on the agricultural sector of the economy. In addition, almost half of the population lives and works on farms in the interior of the island. Like the tourism trade, agriculture is a highly volatile industry and can change yearly depending on uncontrollable environmental factors like rainfall, humidity, and temperature. As global temperatures continue to rise, extreme weather patterns have made farming in Jamaica increasingly difficult.  

One of the most pressing issues in Jamaican farming is the availability of fresh water. Despite being an island surrounded by saltwater, irrigation infrastructure in Jamaica has historically been inadequate, especially in the more mountainous regions. Increasing summer temperatures only exacerbate this problem. The combined heat and dry soil make dust the most abundant product of the fields, and without a consistent water source, planting anything is futile.  

But farmers in Jamaica have begun fighting back. With the help of the United Nations, farmers in Mount Airy, a central Jamaican farming community, have installed thirty new rainwater collectors and reservoirs to make the most of their limited water resources. In addition to these reservoirs, they have also used U.N. financing to shift to dissolvable fertilizer, which is more economical than traditional methods. This partnership between the UN and local communities has been praised as a prime example of what needs to happen on an international level to both facilitate the goals of small-hold farmers, who are the most likely to be impacted by crop failure, and create a more equitable future for agriculture in the face of climate change. 

The Jamaican government is not unaware of the threat to its countries existence. They have acknowledged the harm that climate change is having on their economy, with problems like rising oceans, extreme heat, and more volatile weather patterns, like increased hurricanes, plaguing every sector of their limited industry. In 2020, Jamaica presented a stringent plan climate action plan to the UN, setting a new precedent as the first Caribbean country to do so. It will be up to larger, more industrialized nations, to heed this call before rising global temperatures become too much to bear.  

Unequal Impact: The Deep Links Between Racism and Climate Change

The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have cast stark new light on the racism that remains deeply embedded in U.S. society. It is as present in matters of the environment as in other aspects of life: Both historical and present-day injustices have left people of color exposed to far greater environmental health hazards than whites.

Elizabeth Yeampierre has been an important voice on these issues for more than two decades. As co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, she leads a coalition of more than 70 organizations focused on addressing racial and economic inequities together with climate change. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Yeampierre draws a direct line from slavery and the rapacious exploitation of natural resources to current issues of environmental justice. “I think about people who got the worst food, the worst health care, the worst treatment, and then when freed, were given lands that were eventually surrounded by things like petrochemical industries,” says Yeampierre.

Yeampierre sees the fights against climate change and racial injustice as deeply intertwined, noting that the transition to a low-carbon future is connected to “workers’ rights, land use, [and] how people are treated,” and she criticizes the mainstream environmental movement, which she says was “built by people who cared about conservation, who cared about wildlife, who cared about trees and open space… but didn’t care about black people.”

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