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“We Are on the Frontline”: Despite Tiny Carbon Footprint, Bahamas Is Ground Zero of Climate Crisis

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Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm over the weekend, lingering for days and leaving nearly unimaginable destruction in its path. The airport on Grand Bahama Island has been completely decimated, and entire neighborhoods have been razed. Hundreds, if not thousands, remain missing. We speak with University of Miami assistant professor Erica Moiah James about the climate change-fueled hurricane and how the people in the Bahamas are on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

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StorySep 04, 2019“This Is a Climate Emergency”: Devastated by Dorian, the Bahamas Are on Frontlines of a Dying Planet
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. As we continue to look at the devastating Hurricane Dorian, we go to Miami, Florida, where we’re joined by Erica Moiah James, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Miami, founding director and chief curator of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, her op-ed in The New York times headlined “Hurricane Dorian Makes Bahamians the Latest Climate-Crisis Victims.”

Erica Moiah James, thanks so much for being with us. Explain exactly what you mean, and talk about what you’ve heard of family and friends in the Bahamas now.

ERICA MOIAH JAMES: I almost don’t know where to begin. In terms of climate, the Bahamas is — as I said in the op-ed, we have a very small footprint in the world, but we have been experiencing the impact of climate change for the last 40 years. I’m a little bit older, just slightly older than that, and I can remember personally. You know, I can tell you personal stories about the ways in which rising sea levels and changing environments has affected my life personally and the way that we live in the Bahamas. So, we know that we are on the frontline. And we know, according to the latest U.N. climate change report, that we are ground zero for the effects of global warming in the world. And though we’re a small footprint, it’s moments like these that really brings this reality home to us.

And in terms of my own what has happened, it is devastating. We are experiencing sublime conditions of horror, you know? And I’m looking at all of the footage and everything that people are sending me from the Bahamas. And last night I was looking through the eyes of a child, whose eyes, just in recounting what he saw — you know, dead bodies floating as he tried to save his own life. And he couldn’t believe it. You know, it was almost beyond the capacity of his young mind to comprehend what he was experiencing.

And these are happening more and more. And the Bahamas is one part of the Caribbean. I think every year — you know, it’s Puerto Rico one year, it’s the Virgin Islands another year, it’s Dominica another year, it’s Haiti another year. We know the language of this horror all too well. And, unfortunately, I think one of the reasons I wrote the op-ed was to get — really communicate to the wider world what that means, to really come to feel what we feel, and use language in a way to communicate what sometimes becomes almost impossible to believe with our own eyes. I wanted us to feel this through language. And that was my primary goal with the op-ed.

I think, in terms of my own family, we have family on Abaco and Grand Bahama. Everyone — it’s a small community. I mean, we have 400,000 people. We’re scattered across a vast amount of ocean. And we are connected, interconnected with various islands. And my primary concern was my cousin who’s on dialysis, who is in need of a kidney, you know, getting from Abaco, getting from Marsh Harbour to Nassau. And once we realized she was secured, it gave me almost permission to worry more about my family, my other friends and people that I’ve come to love, you know, just in terms of my professional life.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, Professor Erica Moiah James, in your piece, “We watch as the governments of small island states like our own, tied to multinational agreements, are forced to make decisions that are not in the best interests of the people they serve, while our electrical grid fails and we are made more dependent on fossil fuels rather than renewable energy. 'Too expensive,' they say. 'For whom?' we reply. 'Is cost the only consideration?'” Explain what you mean.

ERICA MOIAH JAMES: That’s a very complicated statement. I tried to pack a lot in there. But in recent months, I think news reports would have told you that the Bahamian electrical grid is failing. And for many, many years, we’ve wondered. You know, we have a massive amount of sun. We have wind. We have all of these means to produce alternative energy. And we’ve always wondered, you know: Why aren’t we taking advantage of alternative energy? We seem perfectly — you know, all of the elements are there.

And to be honest, there have been legal blocks to the average Bahamian, to ordinary Bahamians taking advantage of alternative energy. We have one electrical company that dominates New Providence, the main island. And it was government-owned for a very long time. It uses fossil fuels. It is committed to agreements with certain multinational companies. And we’re kind of stuck in that relationship. And other legal and governmental roadblocks are put in place. And they’re not always laws. Sometimes they’re just the difficulties — involved with the difficulties of getting permission to do things, or the rules become very ambiguous, that you can’t go from step one to step 10 in order to see something through.

So, yes, I mean, I think multinational — in small countries like ours, I think we’ve come to realize, very early, that multinational companies have become more powerful than small nation-states. And part of their power lies in the fact that they operate in multiple countries. While we are consumed by, you know, or asked to focus on xenophobia and antagonism across each other, what global warming tells us is that these ideas of nationhood and things like that, that’s one way to see us, but, in a sense, we need to learn to understand that we are part of a global ecosystem. And what one person does in one country really impacts the lives of others. The Caribbean, the Bahamas, we’re small, but when the United States sneezes, we catch a cold. When something happens elsewhere, we’re the ones that, in a sense, catch — you know, we catch the wind, so to speak. And I think Dorian can also be seen as a metaphor for the ways in which small nations like the Bahamas are impacted by global concerns.

AMY GOODMAN: Very interestingly, the Bahamas are the richest country outside of Canada and the United States, with tourism, with the financial industry. And on that issue of the huge tourism industry, your response to mainland Americans looking at the island as a utopian retreat for a vacation and then forgetting about the island when it comes to climate change or when it’s devastated, as it is now?

ERICA MOIAH JAMES: Yeah, I think that term that you use, “richest,” is a relative term. I think it’s also — we also spend 10 times as much for electricity than I do here in Miami, right? A $200 electrical bill will be 2,000 U.S. dollars in the Bahamas. So, on paper, we may say, “OK, our GDP is X, Y, Z per person,” but what is the cost of living in that space? And I think we have to understand that life isn’t just about, you know, what’s on the GDP. It’s how expensive is it to live there. And to live in the Bahamas is extremely expensive. And so, that idea of richest, yes, you may take in this money, but you’re dependent on an industry that, in a sense, is designed to take the money that is produced there out. Most of those companies are foreign entities, so a lot of the profits do not necessarily remain in the country. It is produced in the country, but the profits end up elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: How can people help recovery efforts? You mention in your New York Times piece groups like HeadKnowles.

ERICA MOIAH JAMES: I can truly say that living in Miami, I have been gratified by — if there’s something beautiful in this horror, it is the ways in which communities, at least in South Florida, who are attached to these communities — you know, they go there, they understand it in a very physical and real way, they have homes there — have mobilized. And Bahamians helped build Miami. They built Coconut Grove. They built Vizcaya. They’re some of the oldest structures in the city. We don’t talk about age much in Miami, but some of the oldest structures. In Key West, the first houses were built by Bahamians from Abaco. So there is a historical tie between the Bahamas and South Florida.

And now I am seeing those roots bear fruit, in a sense that people have mobilized in an important way. I, as a Bahamian, I support NGOs on the ground, and I have supported the work of Lia Head and Gina Knowles, the two women that run HeadKnowles, the HeadKnowles Foundation. But wherever you are in the world, wherever you are in the communities, there are drop-off points. My nephews’ schools, both of them are doing drives. The University of Miami, where I teach, we are doing multiple projects in order to assist. The Bahamas is a laboratory in a lot of ways for our marine sciences. A lot of our research work is based there. In South Florida, you can drop off things that any fire station. Historically, Bahamian churches, like Christ Episcopal Church in the Grove, which was founded by Bahamians, has become a major point where you can drop off things. So, I’m just — I’m gratified, actually, at least here in South Florida, about the amount of interest and the amount of generosity and community. The feeling of community, that people care, that they want to assist the Bahamas, is here. And [inaudible] thing is that it’s sustained, you know, because, like your guest said earlier, this is going to take some time.

AMY GOODMAN: Erica Moiah James, I want to end by asking you about the end of your piece: “We need lots of things, but please — no tossed paper towels. This is not funny. Though gracious, Bahamians may toss them back to you.” And I’m wondering what you think of the emphasis right now, President Trump’s obsession right now with saying that Alabama was about to be hit, the magic-markering of the map and endlessly tweeting about this, perhaps more than about the Bahamas, and the historic devastation that we have seen there, President Trump a climate denier himself.

ERICA MOIAH JAMES: I find it deeply disturbing. It is incomprehensible. And I think part of the reason — and we’re becoming almost, sadly, immune to that. And one of the things I wanted to awaken in that piece is empathy and feeling and a little — and speak from a position of truth. That’s becoming increasingly remote. I think we can create the facts, but that’s not even — in the end, that doesn’t hold water, as we say in the Bahamas. And Bahamians are very straightforward. They want help, but they want it to be done in a respectful way. And I think, for my Puerto Rican brothers and sisters, that was a moment of deep disrespect. They felt very, very insulted, I think, by that action. And I wanted to end with that, because I want it to be a reset button in terms of how large countries sort of regard those smaller countries and regard those who are facing crises like this. We want your help, but please do it respectfully. You know, yeah, otherwise, there’s going to be — I mean, there are weapons that we people use, and one of them is disregard. And unfortunately, I think, in some cases, we have had to disregard the actions of the president, simply because they’re so outrageous, and we really just have to put our focus and our energies elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Erica Moiah James, we want to thank you for being with us, assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Miami, founding director and chief curator of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas. We’ll link to your op-ed piece in The New York times, “Hurricane Dorian Makes Bahamians the Latest Climate-Crisis Victims.”

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