In honor of Earth Day this past weekend, I want to share with you an unbelievable conversation I had last year. It was my extreme honor to get to interview Dr. James Fletcher, former Minister of Service, Sustainable Development, Energy, Science, and Technology in Saint Lucia, international climate change mover and shaker, and founder of the Caribbean Climate Justice, an organization that educates people on the effects climate change has on the livelihoods of Caribbean people.
It feels right to share this conversation with you this week – to remind each one of you that every individual has so much power to positively affect our planet.
Dr. Fletcher has a truly masterful knowledge on the political and social components of environmental care. He holds a B.S in Biochemistry and a Ph.D in crop physiology, degrees he has creatively combined and drawn upon to inform his environmental work. He has worked as Chairman of the Executive Board of the Caribbean Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency as well as the CARICOM Regional Task Force on Sustainable Development. Dr. Fletcher has worked passionately and tirelessly for his island home of Saint Lucia – creating policies for renewable energy, working to make information technology available to everyone across Saint Lucia, and restructuring the water sector.
But he is perhaps best-known for his work in international climate change as he was one of a few ministers responsible for guiding the parties to reach consensus on the Paris Agreement at COP21 and was instrumental in creating the global temperature limit of 1.5 °C.
Can you see why I’m excited? Without further ado, here is my conversation with the incomparable Dr. Fletcher.
Have you been interested in the natural world from a young age?
Biology for me was the perfect subject. You didn’t have to memorize anything; you just saw it unfolding in front of you. All you really needed were explanations of what you were seeing – why the leaves were green and that greenness in the leaf, what was contributing to it, how was that connected to everything in life – unlike other subjects like geography or history that you had to memorize and try to draw some connection. Biology was something that we were seeing in front of us.
It caused me to ask questions, not to always accept the answer that I see in front of me. My undergrad biochemistry lecturer taught me something that has stayed with me throughout my life. He said, “You shouldn’t only ask yourself why. Ask yourself why not.” If you can answer why not, it gives you a better understanding of the problem. It also might put you on the path to discovering something else. I think that really is why I’ve stayed in natural sciences.
How have your degrees in crop physiology and biochemistry informed the work that you’ve done?
Crop physiology was a deviation for me because I hadn’t really done any work in plant sciences up until then. In fact, I went into biochemistry with the intention of going into medicine. But what biochemistry did give me was a good understanding of how processes work within the body – both animal and plant.
Crop physiology when I decided to do it, I felt, “OK, how you can use your biochemistry background to make it most useful?” Agriculture is a very important component of our economy here in Saint Lucia. It’s what has driven us for so long. So, looking at plant physiology [is] a lot a lot more productive and a lot more relevant for me. That’s why I went into that.
But what both my biochemistry and my crop physiology training [have done] is given me a very good perspective of what the natural world is: why we all must live in harmony on this planet, what ecosystems are about, and why ecosystems are so important in nurturing and really providing the substrate for all life on this planet. [What] I think people who don’t have good scientific backgrounds miss in the whole climate change discussion is that the planet is a living organism. And you can’t sit behind a desk and do a computer simulation and figure out what’s going to happen.
You’ve called climate change an existential issue. But a lot of people who live in developed countries don’t experience the effects of climate change immediately. For those of us living in developed countries, can you help us understand how developing countries are disproportionately affected by climate change?
Most of us are small island states. If a hurricane goes through the United States and it batters the southwest coast of the United States, it’s only the southwest coast of the United States that’s affected. When a hurricane passes through any Caribbean island, the entire island is affected. You can’t look dispassionately – you’re impacted.
I worked in Dominica for 6 months after the passage of Hurricane Maria. The anxiety among Dominicans who had just lived through Maria was the worst, unimaginable experience you could ever think of. In the middle of the night, you are hearing this wind howling and screaming and you’re hearing things crashing around you and you don’t know what it is. There’s no electricity, you don’t dare go out. And every time they have a storm coming across, they relive that experience and their anxiety levels go up. In a couple of the interviews I did, people actually started crying when they were recounting what happened.
Everybody can give you a climate change experience. Whether they make the connection with climate change or not, climate change is impacting their lives. It’s a little frustrating for us when we hear people discussing climate change in very academic, very numbers-based ways, and we say to them, “We’re living this every single day. And every day you delay, every time you quibble over semantics, there are people’s lives that are being impacted irreversibly.”
I’m thinking about the fact that so much of the climate crisis is created by developed countries and big corporations. What are your feelings about what larger nations have or have not done since the Paris Agreement in 2016?
The thing about the Paris Agreement that we have to understand is that there’s nothing that is legally binding. In fact, the developed countries were very adamant when we were speaking loss and damage because they didn’t want to be held legally liable for anything. Many of the countries that said that they would do A B & C – they haven’t done that.
I think that’s the problem. You need massive global action, but particularly from the countries that are the major initiators. Saint Lucia’s contribution to the global inventory of greenhouse gases is 0.0015%. Even if we were to switch entirely to renewable energy, we wouldn’t make a difference. However, we still understand the importance of doing this. We want to be able to take the moral high ground.
We need massive global action. But we also need everybody to understand that everybody must have a part. If everybody does the same thing, then we can get that momentum that we need. Everybody must be committed from the very smallest to the very largest. But, most importantly, we want the large countries to own up to their responsibility.
Do you think legal consequences need to be imposed?
I think it has to be an option because we can’t continue spending time in negotiations. What we’re seeing in COP’s is incremental progress. There is progress, but it’s incremental. What’s happening in our countries are not slow incremental impacts. I think that litigation has to be part of it. That’s why you’re hearing a lot of talk about civil society litigating against big companies and small islands litigating against big countries because they realize that this game is not being played fairly. We are here expecting that we shook hands on this and everybody’s going to do their part – and instead, you’re doing worse. There comes a point where you have to start looking at litigation and holding people responsible.
Even in the face of larger nations not living up to their end of the bargain, it sounds like you strongly believe in individual action and the power that has to really change the climate crisis.
Yes. And for two reasons. One, because you could help lessen the impact on you. If I’m composting and I have a kitchen garden, when the price of food goes up, then I know, “I can probably live off some of the fruits and vegetables in my garden.” It allows you to develop some level of internal resilience which is extremely important.
But the other part of individual and community action that I think is underestimated is the effect that it can have politically. If you have large numbers of people taking action and saying, “This is important to us: our government needs to tell us what is it doing about the water crisis and what is it doing with respect to renewable energy,” then you put pressure on your government to do the right things. As Greta Thunberg has been able to do with students globally.
I think that’s where the individual action comes in because everybody has a vote and that vote is important. And every politician needs that vote. If you could say this vote is now tied to what you do, the type of action that you take, then they start understanding.
In terms of individual action, this question comes from our founder. She wants to know how important it is for individuals to use sustainable waste management systems in their private lives – particularly composting.
A lot of this climate change problem is driven by a consumption and production system that’s on steroids. Unless you can get to the point where you can start being a little bit more responsible with your consumption, you have to find a way to recycle what it is you bought. Composting is a really great way of doing it. I compost. [It] is a way of me not just reusing and recycling some of my material, but also helping because I’m putting organic matter back into my soil.
The problem, though, is that in our plastic-driven society, composting is not going to help to get rid of. Certainly not in my neck of the woods because we haven’t started doing plastic recycling yet, and that’s what we need to do. Most of the waste we generate is plastic waste. If you live on a small island like mine, there really isn’t a lot of land mass that you can say, “This is where we’re going to locate our next landfill.” You have to plan a way to prevent stuff from getting into the landfill. If you can get everybody to start composting and start recycling, that is a massive improvement.
What advice would you give to young people who want to help reverse climate change?
Understand the problem. You have to understand it before you can really identify with it. When I became a minister, my first year was spent just understanding the problem. If you don’t understand the problem, you can’t speak about it and you certainly can’t speak passionately about it. All you will do is regurgitate some text that you’ve read somewhere.
Then, get a feeling for how it’s impacting