Posts

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Culture Clash: We Need to Prepare for a Plastic-Free Bahamas

The commitment has been made to ban single-use plastic in The Bahamas by next year. There have been a few mentions in the media since 2018, but I have not seen much happening to prepare the public for the changes to come.

Earlier this year, I read that single-use plastic bags would be banned in Halifax, Nova Scotia by the end of this year. I was surprised because plastic bags were being phased out for years. When I attended university there, it was a norm to separate waste. When I came back to Nassau on breaks, I’d walk around with cans or bottles for a long time before realising I would not come across the appropriate bin since we do not sort waste. In addition, while I was there, grocery stores started charging for plastic bags. The options were simple — pay ten cents for each plastic bag, buy a reusable bag from the grocery store, or bring your own reusable bag. Everyone there, including students from other countries, got with the programme. Eventually, plastic bags were not even an option in some of the stores.

On a recent trip to Antigua, I quickly realised there were no plastic bags. Some stores offered paper bags, some sold reusable tote bags and others encouraged customers to bring their own. I kept a canvas tote bag hanging on my door to remind myself to take it with me when I went to any store. Here, we fuss about certain items not being double-bagged and I have never seen anyone take their own bags to the grocery store. I rarely see anyone refuse a bag when they could put their small purchase in a bag they already have. How will we adjust when the ban is in place?

Major grocery stores should be taking the lead in preparing the public for the changes. They could start selling reusable bags at a reasonable price. Takeout restaurants and coffee shops could encourage customers to bring their own cups by offering discounts on beverages and promoting the option. It is time for a small business to make reusable utensils and lunch kits available for sale. We may even have the raw material to make them. Find out how the Small Business Development Centre can assist in getting that kind of business off the ground. Individuals can start buying the necessities, if only one item per month, to avoid a heavier burden at the end of the year. We don’t all want to get bamboo forks, spoons and straws for Christmas, nor do we want to see significant increases takeout prices in 2020. Let’s start talking about the options that exist, and those we can create. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

It is also important to note the ban on plastic straws is not as simple as it may seem. If it is not already, the Ministry of Environmental Health Services needs to specifically engage the disabilities community as bendable plastic straws are necessary – and not substitutable – for some people living with disabilities. The ban on single-use plastic will affect some of us more than others.

If this is the tunnel, where is the light?

While many celebrate the arrival of summer, this has to be the most difficult time to be in Nassau. It is hot with seemingly no relief unless you have the luxury of air conditioning. It is infuriating that something so basic – and increasingly necessary over the years as temperatures rise – is so cost-prohibitive. Many forgo the use of air conditioning because electricity bills are already too high. Even some who are willing to make the sacrifice are made to suffer as Bahamas Power and Light fails to properly manage its equipment. Even the free relief — dipping in the ocean — has been halted due to reports of sea lice or thimbles that bite and leave people itching for days. In this kind of heat, that is a risk many of us are not willing to take.

The outages come without warning, and there are two types of people — those who charge every device when they get below 80 percent and have a battery-operated fan, and those who are caught off guard every time and have come to almost enjoy posting angry comments on social media.

The bar for Bahamas Power and Light is so low that some of us were impressed when a load-shedding schedule was shared last week Monday. Unfortunately, it did not include every area, and the practice did not continue. We were, the very next day, back to being completely in the dark. We are all upset. We all say we’ve had enough. How many of us are prepared to stop paying the bill? How many are prepared to be without electricity? How many are willing to take action to compel BPL and the government to clean up the mess and provide one of the most basic needs for the residents of this country?

We are often stuck in cycles of recognising an issue, complaining about it, getting temporary relief (often knowing it will not last) and descending to the previous condition. The ongoing issue with BPL is one example. We are at the place where we do not care about the transformer problems and illegal dumping excuses. We want the problem resolved, but we keep getting bandaids. As we continue to pay electricity bills, however high the climb, sweat it out in our corners, purchase generators and keep them fuelled – and drive around for hours just to be in air conditioning – we ease the pressure. We signal that, even in our frustration, we are only prepared to whine about it for a few minutes.

BPL cannot even be bothered to give us schedule. It does not believe that we, as customers, deserve to know when the service we pay for will be disrupted. They are making decisions about who will be turned off and when, and choosing not to advise the public. Is this not enough to fire us up? To stop all payments? To get comfortable in the air conditioning on Tucker Road for a few hours? Maybe that is too extreme, requires too much planning and convincing, or would inconvenience us too much. Maybe there is another way to demonstrate our displeasure and apply pressure to the people who can do something about it for more than a few hours at a time. Are we ready to imagine, discuss and act on it yet?

The battery-operated fans, generators, air conditioned cars and mobile data are making us more comfortable and, yes, helping us to function, but let’s not get complacent. The problem still exists and it’s getting worse. We, the affected, may have to be the ones to inspire the resolution.

Published by The Tribune on July 17, 2019.

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Culture Clash: The Climate Change Threat

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on September 20, 2017

When we talk about climate change, it is often in limited, abstract ways. Climate change is not just about the temperature, land mass, or sea levels.

The effects of climate change include economic loss, changes in atmospheric concentration, and cultural loss.

The Bahamas, being an archipelagic nation and a small island developing state, must acknowledge climate change as a real and present threat — not one that may materialise in a century. This hurricane season has turned up the volume on conversations about climate change, though the focus has been more on adaptation than mitigation.

Most people are thinking about ways we can build differently so we better withstand hurricanes, but we also need to think about the ways we contribute to the problem as well as changes in policy and personal practices we need to make. For us to take climate change seriously, we need to know exactly what it is and how it affects us.

What is climate change?

Climate change does not refer to weather conditions. Weather changes from day to day and place to place while climate is the usual weather of a place. Climate can change according to seasons. Climate change, then, is the change in the usual weather of a place. This change could be temperature in a particular season, the amount of rainfall over a period of time, or the frequency and intensity of storms.

Global average temperature is currently around fifteen degrees celsius, and we know it has been higher and lower before. The problem is the rapid increase we are experiencing. Research shows that temperature has increased by 0.8 degrees celsius from the late 19th century to now, and seventy-five percent of that increase was only in the last 30 years. This exponential increase that can only be attributed to human activity.

What causes climate change?

Climate can change due to changes in the sun, or the ocean, but we also affect climate through our daily activities like driving and burning coal. When we burn fossil fuels, which emit carbon dioxide, gases are released that heat the air. The problem here is that only so much carbon dioxide can be naturally absorbed. We complicate it further when we clear land, getting rid of trees that are one of the best carbon-absorbing resources. Not only are we releasing more of this gas, but we’re depleting the earth of its natural fix.

While industrialized countries are the main producers of greenhouse gases, Caribbean countries consume the largest amounts of fossil fuels in the region for the production of electricity. Here is our reality: our countries are at the greatest risk and are least able to adapt to climate change.

How does it affect The Bahamas?

We can see the effect of climate change, from beach erosion to coral reef bleaching. In the name of development, we have given up much of our protection in the form of mangroves. We have paid little attention to food security, believing our proximity to the US will feed us forever. We have not been realistic, or thought about the impact of our decisions on our existence as a country.

Climate change means more than unbearably hot summers and higher electricity bills because air conditioning feels like a necessity. As the earth’s temperature rises, we will experience more than warmer weather (while other places may get colder or experience other weather changes), but other things happen that we do not see from here. Ice will melt, resulting in rising sea levels.

Eighty percent of The Bahamas is less than one meter above sea level. To put this in perspective, if the Greenland Ice Sheet melts, sea levels will rise by six meters.

In a 2002 report, The Caribbean Planning for Adaptation to Global Climate Change Project named increases in the number and intensity of storms, heavy rainfall in the north and drought in the south, and land loss due to rising sea level as major concerns for The Bahamas.

The 2017 hurricane season has already shown us that we are not prepared for the effects. Unless we intend to be climate refugees, we need to listen to scientific facts, use technology, and build innovative systems for mitigation and adaptation in response to climate change.

What can we do?

Though it may not be our favourite thing to think about, discuss, or act on, we all know a little something about the environment and how we impact it. We need to do a better job of using what we have.

One of our greatest resources, and one we tend to think about in terms of tourism only, is the sun. We can significantly reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn by switching to solar power.

This, of course, comes with other benefits like reduced cost (over time) of power generation and less frequent interruption of power.

In his contribution to the United Nations Climate Summit in New York City in September 2014, former Prime Minister Perry Christie called on “developed” nations to honour their commitments to climate finance support to assist vulnerable countries like The Bahamas.

We need to familiarise ourselves with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change which The Bahamas ratified in August 2016 and consider the effect of the US withdrawing from the agreement.

In its Manifesto, the Free National Movement referenced climate change and the vulnerability of these islands. The party promised, among other things, creation of a Ministry of the Environment, implementation of a Waste-to-Energy programme, phasing out of plastic bags by 2020, and properly testing emissions.

Has there been discussion about any of these commitments since May 10, 2017? When should we expect work to begin? Are we doing our duty, as citizens of The Bahamas, to remind this administration of its commitments and demand that they are met? Are we paying attention to our representatives’ participation in global meetings and agreements, and creating an environment where consultation with the Bahamian people and reports on these meetings are the norm? What are we doing to hold our representatives to account?

In his address at the COP 22 conference, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell said, “Climate change is not an esoteric matter but an existential one”.

Indeed, climate change is a threat to our existence, and we must treat it as such. Let’s not forget our responsibility to govern our own behaviour. Let’s not relax and wait for our representatives to do what must be done.

Be mindful in use of energy and water, reduce waste by being a more conscious consumer, learn more about climate change and its effects, and call on our representatives to fulfil the commitments made in the FNM Manifesto’s section on the environment.