The Media and Climate Change in the Caribbean
The treatment of climate change issues in the Caribbean media has suffered from a chronic problem associated with the overall viability of Caribbean media generally. Within the Eastern Caribbean sub-region, the situation is worse as noted in a previous article which spoke to media freedom. Fundamentally, the issue is a lack of economic viability and the consequent dependence on other sources of information or propaganda. In this instance, the concern relates less to the nature of the media’s climate agenda and more to the media’s interest and presumed assumption that climate matters are not “sexy”. This lack of “sexiness” means that climate change matters are rarely highlighted in the context of the critical development issues that they are. Instead, media priority is given to matters such as crime, economic issues and suspected or confirmed political scandal, which excites the attention of the general public.
The Caribbean islands are uniquely exposed to climate change on account of their location and the recent experience of Dominica aptly illustrates this vulnerability. As such, the media there was privy to the impact of tropical storm Erika (2015) and shortly thereafter hurricane Maria (2017). In response, both the public and private media chronicled the devastation in the aftermath and reflected on the allocation of assistance, which in many instances was politicised. The larger and presumably more important issue of Dominica’s vulnerability, the need for climate resilience and global action in respect of climate change continues to be infrequently highlighted or discussed locally.
Central to the government’s climate resilience initiative is the Climate Resilience Execution Agency of Dominica (CREAD), established in 2015. This entity has been the focus of considerable reflection by the international media; however there has been little consideration of it by local entities that prefer to focus on more immediately sensational issues. Certainly, CREAD has been active in speaking to its own achievements and any such releases are carried by the various local media; however, the type of analysis which objectively considers the developmental progress from the perspective of local journalists is virtually non-existent.
Another example of the media focus can be conveyed with respect to the little talked about Debt for Climate Swap which is a novel initiative that allowed for heavily indebted countries to exchange some of their debt for project funding to help build resilience. Thus far Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have received funding in various levels through that initiative. Media in these countries have reported on the level of grant funding, but there is a glaring absence of critical analysis regarding the overall utility of this programme, the appropriateness of projects identified or the identification of potential future projects. There is also little consideration of the extent to which other Caribbean countries could participate in the initiative.
In the case of Barbados, PM Mottley has more recently become a champion of climate change with her Bridgetown initiative which seeks to establish a US$500-billion Global climate Mitigation Trust, based on IMF initiatives and specialised borrowing facilities. She championed this initiative at the COP 27 meeting in Scotland and it gained substantial interest, much of which was reported both in Bridgetown and across the region. Interestingly; however, some sections of the local media were more anxious to explore the cost of Barbados’ delegation and the extent to which a virtual presence could have saved the taxpayers the cost of flights.
Since the initial talks, Barbados has secured US$183 million in loan finance under this facility to support development projects that can impact positively on climate resilience. One of the initial target projects is the local fresh water supply which has suffered from droughts recently and has been costly to rectify. The nature of this problem is well-known and has been reported on by the local press in terms of the human impact. Responses to this local initiative have been less effusive and focused more on the extent to which government has been raising its debt profile and whether this debt is sustainable in the long term. The contrast in reporting between the tragedy of water scarcity and the excessive concern regarding debt financing to respond to this crisis, speaks volumes about the media’s interest horizon and inability to consider issues holistically.
The most significant risk regarding Caribbean media as it relates to climate change is a lack of capacity, which effectively means that well-resourced external agencies or local agencies with an often-impure agenda are able to influence the media focus. Within the OECS the existence of reporters or journalists with an exclusive environmental focus is rare and if so, would be associated with the Government Information Service or any other publicly owned media house with an obligation to champion the government’s cause. This lack of sophistication is a perennial challenge for Caribbean media in other regards and now also manifests itself with respect to climate change issues. But the issues are more and more pressing and deserve to be covered.
Peter W. Wickham (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).