Climate Change in Virgin Islands Gets Renewed Focus

A ruined sailboat by Hook Line and Sinker after Hurricane Marilyn. The incoming Bryan-Roach administration plans to address the threat that global climate change poses to the territory. (File photo by Molly Morris)
A ruined sailboat by Hook Line and Sinker after Hurricane Marilyn. The incoming Bryan-Roach administration plans to address the threat that global climate change poses to the territory. (File photo by Molly Morris)

The U.S. Virgin Islands government’s focus on global climate change has been spotty in the 21st century but two intense hurricanes and a federal report may strengthen the focus again.

In a statement forwarded this week to the Source by his transition team, Governor-elect Albert Bryan said he “agrees changing climate is one of the critical issues confronting the Virgin Islands’ economy.”

The statement noted Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s administration at one point had a climate change coordinator, and said, “We trust the findings of this last National Climate Assessment was anticipated and mitigation plans were included in the infrastructure projects already underway.”

Concerns of local environmentalists have also intensified.

“The mid-level projections mentioned in the article put Christiansted, Frederiksted, and many low lying areas underwater. Limetree Bay too, which is especially scary because that then means that everything in their facility will further contaminate the surrounding land and water,” said Jennifer Valiulis, acting executive director, St. Croix Environmental Association, talking to the Source this week.

“A combination of mitigation and adaptation are the keys to dealing with climate change,” she continued. “Mitigation involves getting serious about reducing our carbon output. We need to invest more in renewable energy and make it accessible and affordable for everyone.”

In 2007, after the movie “Inconvenient Truth” became popular, the V.I. government campaigned alerting residents about how they could mitigate climate change (use less fossil-fuel created energy) and the costliness of adaption efforts (building a sea wall along Veteran’s Drive in Charlotte Amalie). The V.I. Energy Office was recognized by SEA with its Good Government Award for 2007.

Those efforts gained strength when Barack Obama was elected president and stimulus funds were available. Funds were used to expand rebate programs for alternative energy systems and energy-efficiency measures. At that time Virgin Islanders were 100 percent dependent on fossil fuel.

By 2014 Karl Knight, Energy Office director at the time, reported fossil fuel consumption was down by 20 percent since 2010. This was due in part to the funds that helped more than 1,000 island home owners put renewable energy systems in their homes and others to purchase energy efficient appliances. The funds also allowed public projects like the solar panels at the Cyril E. King Airport to be completed and energy-efficiency programs at the hospitals. At that time the Virgin Islands government was involved in a federal program, Energy Development in Island Nations (EDIN) with the goal of a 60 percent reduction in fossil fuel use by 2025.

To reach that goal at least one wind farm, possibly two, were proposed. The plans for wind farms have kept coming up in the years since but have not been implemented.

The V.I. Water and Power Authority made progress building solar farms to produce electricity on St. Thomas and St. Croix. Unfortunately, the solar farm on St. Thomas was destroyed by 2017’s double whammy of Cat 5 hurricanes, WAPA also installed reverse osmosis and waste heat recovery systems at its St. Croix power plant.

During the EDIN project, WAPA also began to switch from burning diesel oil to burning propane at its power plants. Propane was cheaper at the time and it puts less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning oil does. However, it is still a fossil fuel and the plan had its critics.

As the stimulus funds went away and the EDIN program wound down in 2014 climate change was not forgotten, but less tangible efforts were seen in the Virgin Islands.

Seminars and conferences continued. But the consequences always seemed far off until last year.

“With increased ocean temperatures, we may get less storms, but the storms that do form are going to monsters, and most of the time category 3 or higher,” said Ryan Boyles, deputy director for the Southeast Climate Science Center, at an August 2017 conference at University of Virgin Islands.

Within six weeks of that prediction two Category Five hurricanes – Maria and Irma – devastated the Virgin Islands.

The scientific report, issued Nov. 23 by 13 federal agencies, presented the starkest warnings to date of the consequences of climate change for the islands. Although the report shows a scientific consensus that climate change is linked to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Donald Trump and other fossil fuel advocates say they don’t believe it.

Shawn-Michael Malone, the V.I. federal affairs coordinator focusing on climate change for the Mapp administration, said in February 2017 the territory should expect to see policy recommendations make their way to the Virgin islands Legislature in the next year to 18 months. On Tuesday the Source contacted the Senate President’s office Tuesday and learned that no such bills have been submitted to the Committee of the Whole as yet. One could be being held in a committee, the Senate President’s office said.

The Virgin Islands could be seen as a microcosm of the dilemma facing the world as it comes to grips with climate change. The announcement this year that the refinery will reopen on St. Croix has been greeted enthusiastically by most residents and government officials. When the Hovensa refinery was closed in 2012, more than 2,000 jobs were lost and the government lost a big chunk of its tax base.

However, SEA’s Valiulis says, “The reopening of the oil refinery was a big step backward for climate change mitigation in the territory.”

According to the Bryan transition team’s statement, “The incoming administration understands the threats and is committed to supporting climate-resilient infrastructure and has charged the transition team, especially the Energy, Environment and Infrastructure assessment team and the Hurricane Recovery assessment team, with providing recommendations on immediate action items.”

The U.S. Global Change Research Program has been producing a climate change assessment every four years since 2006. Last month’s report contained a chapter devoted to the “U.S. Caribbean,” the first time the region was included.

Since 1950, average temperatures recorded for Puerto Rico have risen by1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Global climate models project an increase of another 1.5 degrees to four degrees by 2050 and as high as nine degrees by the end of the century.

Meanwhile, from 2000 to 2017 scientists have measured a sea level rise for the U.S. Caribbean of 0.24 inches. Scientists expect the water to continue to rise at an accelerating rate.