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Undercurrents: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know, and What We Don’t Know Can Hurt

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

Here’s a prediction for 2016: It will be the year that the boring, esoteric topic of climate change finally gets real for Virgin Islands residents.

That’s because they will soon learn what the islands will look like to their children and their grandchildren, how much of the current coast line will be underwater and what present day inland structures will be turned into beachfront properties.

They’ll also find out what a little boost in temperature can mean for asthma sufferers and people with other chronic conditions, as well as what heretofore foreign critters will be invited into the region by changing currents and weather patterns.

Once that sort of information passes out of the halls of academia and into the public domain, it’s going to become the same sort of pervasive factor affecting virtually every political and social decision just the way “economic crisis” does now.

That’s why the advisory council on climate change that Gov. Kenneth Mapp created by executive order in October is scheduled to meet early in 2016.

It’s why the governor signed a memorandum of understanding with Puerto Rico and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in November pledging cooperation on research and action on global warming initiatives in the region.

And it’s why the local government is right now preparing a grant request for federal funds to pay for a more detailed assessment of potential problems than has been conducted to date.

The assessment is what Shawn Michael Malone, the territory’s federal relations coordinator, calls a “Gap Analysis” – a study that will show what types of information we’re missing.

For instance, he said, we’ve been relying on rainfall and related weather data for the region to predict droughts, but as is abundantly clear to anyone who has lived through even one hurricane season, a few miles can mean the difference between flooding conditions and blue skies. So the territory needs its own, closer-to-home data.

The Caribbean Landscape Conservation Cooperative will be working on the assessment with researchers at the University of the Virgin Islands, including Wayne Archibald, director of the university’s Caribbean Green Technology Center.

The territory is also looking at each government department and agency to assess how well it’s doing in meeting EPA standards.

Malone indicated there is a lot of disparity.

“We’re the leaders in the U.S. territories when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint,” he said. The Virgin Islands has done a lot of work on implementing alternative energy and on conserving water. The motivation wasn’t necessarily environmental – it was more economic survival – but the results were planet-friendly.

However, when it comes to health-related issues, Malone said, “Very little has been done.”

The assessment will become the basis for future grant requests.

Malone is also looking for federal money to fund a major education and awareness campaign he hopes will launch in March.

“We’ve been lucky so far,” he said, in that the territory hasn’t seen early impacts of global warming. “It’s already happening other places.”

For example, he said, at a conference in Puerto Rico last month, a local environmental organization described how erosion has already crumbled an old power plant that used to operate on the shoreline. In Miami, high tide at the full moon now encroaches on the trendy shops and establishments in South Beach. “They’re impacted every month.”

The federal government is now requiring that grant requests for capital projects include an assessment of potential climate change impacts, Malone said. They don’t want to spend millions of dollars on a project that will disappear into the sea in 40 or 50 years.

“The good news is there’s a lot of federal money for climate change,” Malone said. The issue doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom, either. The idea is to get solid information “so people can plan their lives … It’s a big project. It’s exciting too.”

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