During a workshop held at Government House on Wednesday, presenters stressed that climate change will have cascading impacts and that mitigating these effects will take cooperation from all parts of society.
A joint effort of the V.I. government and the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, the two-day workshop began Wednesday and continues Thursday afternoon with participants learning more about adaptation policy and aligning efforts across multiple government agencies.
Since Gov. Kenneth Mapp issued an executive order on climate change in the fall of 2015, efforts have been underway to develop a resiliency plan that can guide policy in the face of a changing climate.
Christopher Zimmerman, director of GICD, said that the national organization he heads advises governors and their executive teams on building stronger communities through strategic planning. Critical issues like climate change are at the forefront of its mission.
With outreach efforts in multiple states, GICD representatives bring a wealth of knowledge to the Virgin Islands having hosted similar workshops across the country.
Learning from other states is one of the workshop’s main goals. Speaking on Hawaii’s experiences, Matthew Gonser of the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program, explained how the state has designed and implemented its climate change policy.
Like the Virgin Islands, Gonser said Hawaii faces hurricanes and erosion from heavy rainfall events that can inundate sewage systems and leave bays polluted. The state has implemented the Hawaii Climate Adaptation Initiative Act, which was put together through a multi-sector effort like the territory is doing with its Climate Change Council.
“We’re not planning for the events, but we have the tools to mitigate the hazards,” Gonser said, adding that the initiative pulled together scientific data and projections on potential impacts.
To have an effective climate change mitigation plan in place to guide policy, presenters stressed the importance of fully understanding all the potential impacts. In the eastern Caribbean, islands will likely face more intense storms and longer periods between rainfall events, which are expected to be more intense when they do happen.
For Parris Glendening, president of GICD and former governor of Maryland, implementing climate change mitigation policy while he was serving in office meant revising building codes, which the Virgin Islands will likely have to do going forward. He said his state had to rethink not only how homes are built and what materials are used, but also how close people can build to the coastline.
Shawn-Michael Malone, the V.I. federal affairs coordinator focusing on climate change, said that the territory should expect to see policy recommendations making their way to the local Senate in the in the next year to 18 months. He added that an advertising campaign will be rolled out soon to educate the community about potential impacts.
“We’re in the planning phase – that’s why it’s so critical for us to do a thorough job,” Malone said.
With federal funding for climate change resiliency planning in jeopardy under the current White House administration, Malone said the territory could still fund mitigation through other avenues. He said the University of the Virgin Islands will continue to be a source for research and that international organizations could also help with funding.
Federal funding for infrastructure improvements such as building up the St. Thomas airport runway will also still be available, Malone explained. Even though the money isn’t specifically for climate change adaptation, it still can be used to address impacts.
Infrastructure improvements are already underway to deal with rising sea levels. During his welcoming speech at the workshop, Mapp said the territory is spending $200 million to raise and expand the roadway along the waterfront in Charlotte Amalie.
To underscore the importance of data collection, Malone recalled the trouble the territory had getting federal relief funding during the 2015 drought. Without groundwater monitoring data, it was difficult for the territory to get a drought declaration. He said groundwater monitoring will return to prevent such delays from happening again.
Because the impacts of climate change are interlinked, attendees and presenters reiterated that all sectors of society, especially government departments, must be on the same page. More intense storms lead to more stress on infrastructure, especially roads, which can lead to a reduction in tourism. Poorer infrastructure can also cause disinvestment or a lack of new investment from businesses.
To that end, a number of government officials and community leaders were present at the workshop, including members from the V.I. Climate Change Council, chambers of commerce, community councils and environmental organizations, as well as commissioners and directors from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Coastal Zone Management and the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs.
Mona Barnes, director of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, spoke on hazard mitigation plans in the Virgin Islands and Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter briefly addressed the attendees.