By Judi Shimel
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell met with scientists and activists on the subject of climate change during a visit to the Virgin Islands last week, her first official visit to the territory.
Talks lasting over an hour took place in a conference room at the National Park Visitor’s Center in Cruz Bay on March 30.
Former Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone headed up the team formed to serve on Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s Climate Change Council. Jewell commended the governor for forming an advisory group to help inform policy makers and the public about the ways climate change affects the territory.
The Interior Department oversees the affairs of U.S. insular areas like Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Native American lands on the U.S. mainland.
The Interior Secretary asked panel members to share with her their thoughts and concerns over climate change related matters the federal government might overlook. Information shared during the meeting would help to shape the overall policy.
Jewell also commended the governor for steps his administration has taken since October to advance efforts in support of communities facing climate change impacts.
“Bringing you together as a steering committee for the council is visionary, on his part, and as you do your part, we will be able to share your successes, working together, with other island communities – particularly the territories because there’s no one more vulnerable to climate change than island communities in the Caribbean and the Pacific,” said Jewell.
Identifying priorities would make it more likely that some could be met, given the political and funding challenges facing the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, according to the Interior Secretary.
Joining the secretary at the Cruz Bay meeting were former VI Senator Basil Ottley, currently serving as policy director to Interior. The Assistant Secretary of Insular Affairs, Esther Kia’aina, was on hand as well.
Those sharing their thoughts included Malone, former UVI President Laverne Ragster, UVI professor emeritus Roy Watlington, St. Croix environmentalist Paul Chakroff, director of Coastal Zone Management for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources Jean-Pierre Oriol, director of UVI Green Technology Center Wayne Archibald, and Angela Balfon, assistant to Malone.
Within the Virgin Islands are natural resources that can be used to measure climate change, according to the council.
Ragster compared the VI’s role as that of a canary in a coal mine.
Jewell said federal authorities are particularly interested in coral reefs. She counted their value along with that of barrier islands fringing the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. When Hurricane Sandy struck the Mid Atlantic States in 2012, areas protected by barrier islands suffered less damage than those that were not, she said.
Oriol touched on another area where the territory and the feds share an interest — development of micro grid electri- cal systems. The Department of Interior is exploring some aspects of micro grids, Jewell said.
Watlington, a geologist and oceanographer, appealed for help to identify and train future scientists. The secretary agreed that experts with local knowledge about the environ- ment are the best ones to spot signs of climate change.
Malone told Jewell the council formed in June as a steer- ing committee. They have met to talk about organizational matters only so far. Further progress may be achieved within the next few days, when discussions about the council come up at one of the governor’s monthly cabinet meetings, Malone added.
Archibald spoke about a two-day regional climate change workshop that was hosed in January by the green technology center. There, experts from the University of the West Indies, Jamaica campus, shared their findings on the subject.
The secretary thanked the group for its input and told them each U.S. territory can expect an allotment of $1.5 million to further its efforts.
The climate council meeting was one of several matters on Jewell’s agenda as she came to the Virgin Islands March 29, said Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw.
The secretary also spent time with students from the Julius E. Sprauve School and announced an award to the territory of $25,000 to help launch the federal program called “Every Kid in a Park” on a local level.
Jewell also sat for talks with Mapp and delivered an address to the people of the Virgin Islands at the 99th Transfer Day ceremonies on March 31.