For Virgin Islands, Being on the Frontlines of Climate Impacts Is Grounds for a Lawsuit

Facing an existential threat from climate change helps explain why the territory's AG is investigating ExxonMobil's record of discrediting climate science.

A man walks through the debris after a hurricane swept over Charlotte Amalie in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In explaining his climate fraud investigation of Exxon, the territory's attorney general has said climate action is an issue of survival for the Virgin Islands. He fears a loss of population as hurricanes and droughts are projected to intensify. Credit:Gary WILLIAMS/AFP/Getty Images

The long white sand beach dotted with palm trees at Richard Doumeng's Bolongo Bay Beach Resort in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, is slowly disappearing.

"There is no doubt our beach is narrower than it used to be," said Doumeng, the managing director of the family-owned hotel. "The tide does seem to be rising. It's not just erosion."

People in this island territory in the Eastern Caribbean deal with the fickle ocean as a matter of survival. They live in the path of hurricanes and deal with natural forces that erode the tourist-luring beaches. But while shifting sands are hard to pin on a single cause, rising seas are most likely playing a role.

The government here understands the islands are bracing for the accelerating effects of climate change. In an Oct. 15 executive order that laid out efforts to formally assess those impacts and begin to adapt to a warming planet, Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp cited the islands' vulnerability. Higher temperatures, severe droughts, flooding, storm surge, sea-level rise and increased spread of tropical disease are all the effects of climate change caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.  

The territory's 350-year-old capital city, Charlotte Amalie, could be swamped by 2050, studies show.

Almost none of that industrialization happened here among palm trees and sun-splashed beaches, but like all islands, the Virgin Islands will disproportionately suffer its impacts. That helps explain why the territory's attorney general, Claude Walker, is one of several attorneys general investigating ExxonMobil's decades-long record of discrediting the science of global warming, even though its own scientists had confirmed the consensus. In a subpoena issued in March, Walker became the first attorney general to investigate the company under racketeering statutes when it told Exxon it was suspected of violating the territory's Criminally Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by misrepresenting what it knew about the role of its fossil fuels in causing climate change.

"To us, it's not an environmental issue as much as it is about survival," Walker said March 29 in New York as a group of Democratic attorneys general announced a coalition to hold fossil fuel companies legally accountable for climate change. "We experience the effects of global warming," he said, citing threats to the territory's main industry, tourism.

Attorney General Claude Walker of the Virgin Islands. Credit: David Sassoon/ICN

Walker had subpoenaed climate change documents from Exxon going back to Jan. 1, 1977. (A separate subpoena seeking information from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, has been withdrawn.)

READ - Exxon: The Road Not Taken

Walker's efforts are in many ways part of a global movement by islands to force action, to hold accountable those responsible for the forces that threaten their existence. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change concluded nearly a decade ago that small islands will be among the first and worst affected by climate change. Some people are already fleeing low-lying islands. It's a problem they didn't cause and one they are fighting with increasing outspokenness and moral conviction.

One vocal organization is the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a group of roughly 40 low-lying island states that pushed for a 1.5 degree Celsius (rather than 2 degrees) warming limit in the text of last year's international climate agreement in Paris.  

"Our members are particularly vulnerable to climate extremes and climate change impacts, and we are acutely aware of the vanishingly little time remaining to adopt a legally binding climate treaty," said Thoriq Ibrahim, environment and energy minister of the Maldives and chairman of Aosis, in the lead-up to Paris.

The U.S. Virgin Islands consists of St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas, as well as a number of smaller islands. The territory covers about 135 square miles of land with 117 miles of coastline and has a population of roughly 100,000. In his March remarks, Walker said he feared a loss of population as hurricanes and droughts are projected to intensify.

"We are a part of the world that doesn't contribute significantly to climate change but is impacted significantly by it," said LaVerne Ragster, former president of the University of the Virgin Islands and a member of the recently formed Virgin Islands Climate Change Council.  

Gov. Mapp's executive order called for the formation of a council with representatives from government, businesses and nonprofit organizations to develop a comprehensive strategy for adaptation.

Members of the Climate Change Council testified April 1 before a Virgin Islands senate committee. Sea levels in the territory could rise 4-6 feet by 2050, according to Kostas Alexandridis, director of the institute for geo-computational analysis and statistics at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas.

St. Thomas seen from the sky. Credit: S F photographs/flickr

"Even under the most conservative estimates, with 4 feet of sea-level rise, the whole downtown area of Charlotte Amalie will be under water," Alexandridis said. "We have to start thinking about climate change adaptation now if the communities are to have any meaningful response in the next 30 to 50 years."

On March 28, the council received a grant of $828,050 from the U.S. Department of the Interior to further assess the territory's vulnerability.

The Virgin Islands are relatively late to investigating the impacts of climate change. Previous assessments suggest the changes will be significant.

"Rising sea levels, together with the associated coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion, an escalation in the frequency and intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes, and disruptions in rainfall and fresh-water supply threaten the very existence of the [Caribbean Community] countries," concluded a study in 2009 by the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belize.

A report from the neighboring British Virgin Islands found in 2010 that the Caribbean's climate will be as much as 25 percent drier and as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by the 2080s. At the same time, the region will experience heavier rainfall and a greater likelihood of category 4 and 5 hurricanes as temperatures warm, according to the report.

For some, increased storm intensity is the biggest worry.

"Having 100-year storms become 20-year or 10-year cycle storms—that would be disastrous for our communities," said Roy Watlington, a former physics professor at the University of the Virgin Islands and current board member of the observing arm of the Caribbean Regional Association for Integrated Coastal Ocean Observing. "It wrecks our infrastructure. It makes it hard for us to rebuild. It discourages our tourism industry and wreaks havoc with agriculture."

Signs of a drying climate are also beginning to emerge. Last year, the worst drought in decades hit much of the Caribbean. Samuel Tyson, who along with his wife runs RA's Sonrise & Daughter Stand Farm, had to cut back cultivation of fruits and vegetables from five acres to less than an acre after a nearby reservoir dried up.

"You could actually see cracks in the bottom of it and smell the dead fish," Tyson said. "I've never seen that before."

The couple was able to grow only a small fraction of the cassava, papaya, passion fruit and bush beans they typically harvest on their farm. Their coconut trees dried to the point that the trunks wrinkled and the branches sagged until they touched the ground. In September, Tyson helped a neighbor bury three sheep that died of malnutrition.

"I could tolerate the death of plants more than the death of animals," he said.

The cost of climate change's impact on the coasts and nearby waters of the U.S. Virgin Islands over the next 35 years could be as much as $2.8 billion unless greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced, according to a report submitted to the U.S. Department of the Interior by Archibald Energy Group,  an independent consulting company led by University of the Virgin Islands engineering professor Wayne Archibald. The figures do not include damage further inland or costs from disasters such as hurricanes. The territory's annual GDP as of 2014 was $3.7 billion.

This summer, Stacy Mulcare's wedding business, Ceremonies of St. John, is showing just how vulnerable the tourist trade can be. The Zika virusits rapid spread has been tied to climate changemeans Mulcare will obtain marriage licenses, line up photographers and secure hotel accommodations for two-thirds fewer brides and grooms than last summer, she said. She started losing clients after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned women of childbearing age against traveling to the Virgin Islands and other destinations in the region.

"Either brides are picking different destinations to go to or the group size we originally thought we'd be working with for June, July and August weddings has dropped to half or even 75 percent less," Mulcare said.  "A lot of the girls that attend weddings are of childbearing age, and they are afraid of getting Zika."

Mulcare said she'll weather this year's downturn but worries bookings may not bounce back next year.

"By November, December if we don't see any change in the numbers and don't see anything that anyone is doing to help us combat this disease, I think 2017 will really be a problem," she said.

How the Virgin Islands is impacted by and responds to the effects of climate change in the coming years may provide a test case for the rest of United States, Ragster said.

"We're a country where we think that we control everything," but climate change has been an eye-opener for all islands, she said. "We need to pay attention in order to actually deal with it in a rational way. Islands don't have the luxury of sitting around thinking they have control."

Facebook Twitter RSS