Cuba shows how to take action on climate change

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Helen Yaffe (Jacobin Magazine) writes about Cuba’s fight against climate change.

[. . .] Cuba may be responsible for only 0.08 percent of global CO2 emissions, but this Caribbean island is disproportionately hard-hit by the effects of climate change. The frequency and severity of extreme weather events — hurricanes, drought, torrential rain, flooding — is increasing, to the detriment of ecosystems, food production, and public health. Without action to protect the coastline from rising sea levels, up to 10 percent of Cuban territory could be submerged by the end of the century. This risks wiping out coastal towns, polluting water supplies, destroying agricultural lands, ruining tourist beaches, and forcing one million people to relocate — some 9 percent of the population.

But unlike in many countries, where climate action is always something promised for the future, in Cuba, serious action is being taken now. Between 2006 and 2020, several international reports identified the island nation as the world leader in sustainable development. And in spring 2017, the Cuban government approved Tarea Vida (“Life Task”), its long-term plan to confront climate change. The plan identifies at-risk populations and regions, formulating a hierarchy of “strategic areas” and “tasks” in which climate scientists, ecologists, and social scientists work alongside local communities, specialists, and authorities to respond to specific threats. To be progressively implemented in stages from 2017 to the year 2100, Tarea Vida also incorporates mitigation actions like the shift to renewable energy sources and legal enforcement of environmental protections.

In summer 2021, I went to Cuba to learn about Tarea Vida and produce a documentary to be shown during the COP26 international climate change conference in Glasgow. My visit coincided with a surge in COVID-19 cases on the island, and the public health measures imposed to reduce contagion, as well as the July 11 protests. Despite these conditions, we moved freely throughout Havana interviewing climate and social scientists, policymakers, leaders of Cuba’s Civil Defense, people in the street, and communities vulnerable to climate change.

[. . .] Tarea Vida is the culmination of decades of environmental protection regulation, the promotion of sustainable development and scientific investigation. Within Cuba, it is conceived of as a new basis for development, part of a cultural change and a broader process of decentralization of responsibilities, powers, and budgets to local communities. Here, we see that environmental considerations are integral to Cuba’s national development strategy, rather than just a side concern. Tarea Vida is also driven by necessity; climate change is already impacting life on the island. “Today in Cuba, the country’s climate is undergoing a complete transition from a humid tropical climate toward a subhumid climate, in which the patterns of rain, availability of water, soil conditions, and temperatures will be different,” explains Orlando Rey Santos, a ministerial adviser who led Cuba’s delegation to COP26. “We will have to feed ourselves differently, build differently, dress differently. It is very complex.”

“From Rainforest to Cane Field”

Centuries of colonial and then imperialist exploitation and the imposition of the agro-export model led to chronic deforestation and soil erosion in Cuba. The expansion of the sugar industry reduced the island’s forest cover from 95 percent pre-colonization to 14 percent at the moment of the revolution in 1959, turning Cuba “from rainforest to cane field,” as Cuban environmental historian Reinaldo Funes Monzote titled his award-winning book. Redressing this historical legacy became part of the project for revolutionary transformation post-1959, which sought to break the chains of underdevelopment.

Despite the revolutionaries’ early aspirations, Cuba continued to be dominated by the sugar industry through its trade with the Soviet bloc. Productive activities that contributed to pollution and erosion continued, including on account of Cuba’s embrace of the so-called “Green Revolution” of mechanized agriculture — an approach adopted in many developing countries to increase agricultural output. [. . .]

[. . .] This process was not automatic — rather, it required geographers and environmentalists to drive the post-1959 government’s environmental agenda. Outstanding among them was Antonio Núñez Jiménez, a socialist and professor of geography in the 1950s. He served as a captain in Che Guevara’s Rebel Army column and headed the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, among other roles. Influenced by Núñez Jiménez, Fidel Castro also propelled Cuba’s environmental movement. Tirso W. Sáenz, who worked closely with Guevara in the early 1960s and headed Cuba’s first environmental commission from 1976 told me, “Fidel was the main driving force for the incorporation of environmental concerns into Cuban policy.” The Cuban Communist Party has also openly endorsed environmental protection and sustainable growth, which, according to Houck, “provides significant legitimacy to environmental programs.”

[. . .] In 1976, Cuba was among the first countries in the world to include environmental issues in its constitution, and the National Commission for the Protection of the Environment and the Rational Use of Natural Resources was set up. That was eleven years before the UN’s Brundtland Report introduced the notion of “sustainable development” to the world. In the following decades, studies and projects were undertaken and environmental regulations introduced to protect fauna and flora. In 1992, Fidel Castro delivered an uncharacteristically short and appropriately alarming speech at the Earth Summit in Brazil. He blamed exploitative and unequal international relations, resulting from colonialism and imperialism, for the rapacious environmental destruction fueled by capitalist consumer societies, threatening the extinction of mankind. [. . .]

Not Beholden to Profit

Four factors underpin Cuba’s capacity to develop such an ambitious state plan. First, Cuba’s state-dominated, centrally planned economy helps the government to mobilize resources and direct national strategy without having to incentivize private profit — unlike other countries that rely on “market solutions” for climate change.

Second, Tarea Vida builds on Cuba’s world-leading record of anticipating and responding to risks and natural disasters. This has already been frequently demonstrated in its response to hurricanes and, since March 2020, in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. [. . .]

[. . .] The Cuban approach to climate adaptation and mitigation offers an alternative to the globally dominant paradigms based on the private sector or public-private partnerships. It has increasing relevance to tourism-dependent Caribbean SIDS (Small Island Developing States) and other Global South countries emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic with levels of indebtedness that will obstruct future access to international financing. This will bring them closer to the financial and resource restraints that Cuba has confronted for decades due to US sanctions. Tarea Vida relies on low-cost domestic solutions, not external funding. [. . . ]

For full article see

[Shown above Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images: People enjoy the day on the coast along Havana’s Malecon on July 3, 2020.]

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