A report by Natalia Meade for the New Yorker.
At eleven o’clock on Saturday morning, long after Donald Trump, other world leaders, and the hundreds of journalists who cover their every word decamped from New York, Roosevelt Skerrit, the forty-five-year-old Prime Minister of the Caribbean island of Dominica, addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Dressed in a latticework tie and a tailored charcoal-colored suit with a Dominican flag pinned to the lapel, Skerrit, whose country was devastated by Hurricane Maria, declared that “Eden is broken,” and demanded that world leaders acknowledge climate change.
“To deny climate change is to procrastinate while the earth sinks; it is to deny a truth we have just lived. It is to mock thousands of my compatriots who in a few hours without a roof over their heads will watch the night descend on Dominica, in fear of sudden mudslides . . . and what the next hurricane may bring,” Skerrit said. “My fellow-leaders, there is no more time for conversation. There is little time left for action. While the big countries talk, the small island nations suffer. We need action and we need it now.”
Skerrit did not mention Trump by name, but, unlike the leaders of Britain, France, and many other countries, Trump did not mention climate change once in his address to the world body. Skerrit, by contrast, focussed his speech squarely and entirely on climate change. Speaking to a General Assembly Hall that was half empty, Skerrit said warmer air and sea temperatures had “permanently altered” the climate between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and threatened to devastate the Caribbean, a region of forty million people. “Heat is the fuel that takes ordinary storms—storms we could normally master in our sleep—and supercharges them into a devastating force,” Skerrit said.
Researchers agree with him. Since hurricanes began to be recorded and classified, in 1851, thirty-three storms have reached Category 5 strength in the Atlantic, according to Michael Lowry, a visiting scientist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colorado. Two of those tore through the Caribbean within the last two weeks. Data compiled by Weather Underground shows that in only twelve hours Hurricane Maria strengthened from a Category 2 hurricane to a Category 5. When the storm made landfall in Dominica, on Monday, it unleashed a-hundred-and-seventy-five-mile-per-hour winds on the island of seventy thousand people.
When the sun rose on Tuesday morning, swaths of the island’s two hundred and ninety square miles looked like a war zone, Skerrit said. Eighty-five to ninety per cent of homes on the island were damaged, as was the main hospital, which lost its roof and is still without electricity. The unofficial death toll currently stands at thirty, but it is expected to rise as emergency-response teams access remote villages. “We dug graves today in Dominica, buried loved ones yesterday, and I’m sure that, as I return home tomorrow, we shall discover additional fatalities,” Skerrit told the General Assembly.
Dominica is not a stereotypical Caribbean tourist destination of white-sand beaches and sprawling resorts. The most mountainous island of the Lesser Antilles archipelago, the country bills itself as the “Nature Island” of the Caribbean. Morne Trois Pitons National Park is a unescoWorld Heritage site. Three hundred and sixty-five rivers sustain the island’s rainforests and waterfalls. The country is home to nine active volcanos and the world’s second-largest thermally active lake. Its people are spread across coasts, hills, and valleys, and include the Kalinago, the only pre-Columbian indigenous population remaining in the West Indies.
At the United Nations, Skerrit asked why Dominica and the other Caribbean islands should suffer the most from global warming when they have done little to cause it. Although the country meets seventy per cent of its electricity needs through diesel generators (the remaining thirty per cent comes from hydroelectric power), it has contributed far less to the crisis than its more powerful neighbors. “We as a country and as a region did not start this war against nature. We did not provoke it,” Skerrit said. “We do not pollute or overfish our oceans. We have made no contribution to global warming that can move the needle. But yet we are among the main victims.”
Two years ago, Tropical Storm Erika dumped ten inches of rain on Dominica over the course of a few hours, sparking devastating landslides and flooding that caused four hundred and eighty-three million dollars in damage, equivalent to ninety per cent of the island’s G.D.P. Hurricane Maria’s winds and rainfall caused landslides and flooding that could equate to even greater financial losses, according to Skerrit. Citing the likelihood of future storms, he said that Dominica should not be restored to the island it once was; rather, it should be rebuilt with the infrastructure to mitigate future disasters.
If sea levels rise by three feet in the Caribbean, an estimated hundred and ten thousand people will be displaced because of changes to coastal topography, according to the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center, a Belize-based organization that studies climate change in the region. The center estimates that a hundred and forty-nine of the region’s six hundred and seventy-three major resorts, one third of its sixty-four airports, and eighty per cent of its forty-four seaports would be inundated. The flooding would devastate tourism, one of the Caribbean’s primary industries.
Near the end of his speech, Skerrit requested immediate aid to help Dominica recover from Maria, and a long-term international commitment to countering climate change. “Let these extraordinary events elicit extraordinary efforts to rebuild nations sustainably,” he said. “Let these extraordinary events unleash the innovation and creativity of global citizens to spark a new paradigm of green economic development that stabilizes and reverses the consequences of human-induced global warming.”
After Prime Minister Skerrit’s speech concluded, the General Assembly returned to its scheduled business. President Trump spent the weekend at his country club in Bedminster, New Jersey, tweeting about professional athletes, most of them black, who he says disrespect the American flag by kneeling in protest during the national anthem. But Trump, too, has been impacted by the Caribbean hurricanes. The other Category 5 storm, Irma, battered the island of St. Martin, where, in 2013, the Trump Organization purchased a five-acre waterfront estate. In April, the Trump Organization put the property up for sale, but it has apparently attracted few buyers. Originally listed at twenty-eight million dollars, the purchase price has dropped by nearly thirty per cent. More hurricanes will further drive down the value of Trump’s estate—and endanger the livelihoods, and lives, of millions of people across the Caribbean.