Cuba Shows How to Take Action on Climate Change

Cuba, a small island besieged by the United States, is taking concrete measures to reorient its economy in the fight against climate change. It’s an example that the whole world should take seriously.

People enjoy the day on the coast along Havana's Malecon on July 3, 2020. (Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images)

Cuba may be responsible for only 0.08 percent of global CO2 emissions, but this Caribbean island is disproportionately hard-hit by the effects of climate change. The frequency and severity of extreme weather events — hurricanes, drought, torrential rain, flooding — is increasing, to the detriment of ecosystems, food production, and public health. Without action to protect the coastline from rising sea levels, up to 10 percent of Cuban territory could be submerged by the end of the century. This risks wiping out coastal towns, polluting water supplies, destroying agricultural lands, ruining tourist beaches, and forcing one million people to relocate — some 9 percent of the population.

But unlike in many countries, where climate action is always something promised for the future, in Cuba, serious action is being taken now. Between 2006 and 2020, several international reports identified the island nation as the world leader in sustainable development. And in spring 2017, the Cuban government approved Tarea Vida (“Life Task”), its long-term plan to confront climate change. The plan identifies at-risk populations and regions, formulating a hierarchy of “strategic areas” and “tasks” in which climate scientists, ecologists, and social scientists work alongside local communities, specialists, and authorities to respond to specific threats. To be progressively implemented in stages from 2017 to the year 2100, Tarea Vida also incorporates mitigation actions like the shift to renewable energy sources and legal enforcement of environmental protections.

In summer 2021, I went to Cuba to learn about Tarea Vida and produce a documentary to be shown during the COP26 international climate change conference in Glasgow. My visit coincided with a surge in COVID-19 cases on the island, and the public health measures imposed to reduce contagion, as well as the July 11 protests. Despite these conditions, we moved freely throughout Havana interviewing climate and social scientists, policymakers, leaders of Cuba’s Civil Defense, people in the street, and communities vulnerable to climate change.

On Havana’s Santa Fe coastline, I came across a fisherman living with his family among abandoned buildings. He described how, when the water floods the ground floor, their home is like a ship at sea. Despite the threat, they intend to stay: “This house can be reduced to one block; I’m not moving,” he said. The first “task” in Tarea Vida includes protecting these vulnerable communities through relocating households or entire settlements. The Cuban state pays for relocation, including the construction of new homes, social services, and public infrastructure. However, it is not mandatory, meaning that these residents must be involved in the decision-making and construction process. There are also examples of communities proposing their own adaptation strategies, enabling them to remain on the coast.

Tarea Vida is the culmination of decades of environmental protection regulation, the promotion of sustainable development and scientific investigation. Within Cuba, it is conceived of as a new basis for development, part of a cultural change and a broader process of decentralization of responsibilities, powers, and budgets to local communities. Here, we see that environmental considerations are integral to Cuba’s national development strategy, rather than just a side concern. Tarea Vida is also driven by necessity; climate change is already impacting life on the island. “Today in Cuba, the country’s climate is undergoing a complete transition from a humid tropical climate toward a subhumid climate, in which the patterns of rain, availability of water, soil conditions, and temperatures will be different,” explains Orlando Rey Santos, a ministerial adviser who led Cuba’s delegation to COP26. “We will have to feed ourselves differently, build differently, dress differently. It is very complex.”

“From Rainforest to Cane Field”

Centuries of colonial and then imperialist exploitation and the imposition of the agro-export model led to chronic deforestation and soil erosion in Cuba. The expansion of the sugar industry reduced the island’s forest cover from 95 percent pre-colonization to 14 percent at the moment of the revolution in 1959, turning Cuba “from rainforest to cane field,” as Cuban environmental historian Reinaldo Funes Monzote titled his award-winning book. Redressing this historical legacy became part of the project for revolutionary transformation post-1959, which sought to break the chains of underdevelopment.

Despite the revolutionaries’ early aspirations, Cuba continued to be dominated by the sugar industry through its trade with the Soviet bloc. Productive activities that contributed to pollution and erosion continued, including on account of Cuba’s embrace of the so-called “Green Revolution” of mechanized agriculture — an approach adopted in many developing countries to increase agricultural output.

However, the detrimental effects were gradually recognized and incrementally redressed, particularly from the 1990s. There has been an increasing concern with protecting the natural endowments of the Cuban archipelago, which boasts extraordinary biodiversity and coastal resources of global importance. The environmental agenda was backed up by Cuba’s scientific and institutional capacity and facilitated by its political-economic framework.

In his work on Cuban environmental law, Oliver A. Houck observed that: “post-revolutionary Cuban law promoted public and collective values from the start. Environmental laws fit easily into this framework.” As early as May 1959, the Agrarian Reform Law gave the state responsibility for protecting natural areas, initiated reforestation programs, and excluded forest reserves from distribution to agricultural collectives. Cuba’s socialist system prioritizes human welfare, and the social character of property facilitates environmental protection and the rational use of natural resources.

This process was not automatic — rather, it required geographers and environmentalists to drive the post-1959 government’s environmental agenda. Outstanding among them was Antonio Núñez Jiménez, a socialist and professor of geography in the 1950s. He served as a captain in Che Guevara’s Rebel Army column and headed the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, among other roles. Influenced by Núñez Jiménez, Fidel Castro also propelled Cuba’s environmental movement. Tirso W. Sáenz, who worked closely with Guevara in the early 1960s and headed Cuba’s first environmental commission from 1976 told me, “Fidel was the main driving force for the incorporation of environmental concerns into Cuban policy.” The Cuban Communist Party has also openly endorsed environmental protection and sustainable growth, which, according to Houck, “provides significant legitimacy to environmental programs.”

In 1976, Cuba was among the first countries in the world to include environmental issues in its constitution, and the National Commission for the Protection of the Environment and the Rational Use of Natural Resources was set up. That was eleven years before the UN’s Brundtland Report introduced the notion of “sustainable development” to the world. In the following decades, studies and projects were undertaken and environmental regulations introduced to protect fauna and flora. In 1992, Fidel Castro delivered an uncharacteristically short and appropriately alarming speech at the Earth Summit in Brazil. He blamed exploitative and unequal international relations, resulting from colonialism and imperialism, for the rapacious environmental destruction fueled by capitalist consumer societies, threatening the extinction of mankind.

That year, a commitment to sustainable development was introduced to the Cuban constitution. Scientific investigations into the impact of climate change in Cuba were initiated. In 1994, a new Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA) was established. It devised a National Environment Strategy, which was adopted in 1997, the same year Law 81 was approved in the National Assembly. Laura Rivalta, a University of Havana law graduate specializing in environmental regulations, explains that this law gave CITMA broad powers to “control, direct, and execute environmental policy” while putting “boundaries and limits” on the activities of foreign companies operating in Cuba. “The new Cuban Constitution approved in 2019 establishes the right to enjoy a healthy and balanced environment as a human right,” she adds.

Not Beholden to Profit

Four factors underpin Cuba’s capacity to develop such an ambitious state plan. First, Cuba’s state-dominated, centrally planned economy helps the government to mobilize resources and direct national strategy without having to incentivize private profit — unlike other countries that rely on “market solutions” for climate change.

Second, Tarea Vida builds on Cuba’s world-leading record of anticipating and responding to risks and natural disasters. This has already been frequently demonstrated in its response to hurricanes and, since March 2020, in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Third is Cuba’s Civil Defense system, established following the devastating Hurricane Flora of 1963. During my visit to the national command, Lieutenant Colonel Gloria Gelis Martínez described their “operational and technical procedures for early warning of the impact of extreme meteorological events. We have surveillance zones and maximum alert zones where we monitor the approach of an event and its impact.” A National Defense Council coordinates this system and is reproduced at provincial, municipal, and neighborhood levels throughout the country. Meteorologist Eduardo Planos explained:

At the local level, risk-study centers focus on the specific phenomenon, and the neighborhood is organized. The social organizations in each area take preventative measures. Local governments set up local defense councils, which organize how the system works, distribute basic foodstuff so people don’t go without, and check electrical installations and the evacuation plan.

Fourth is Cuba’s capacity to collect and analyze local data. Rey Santos highlights what this means practically:

Studies indicate that the average rise in sea level will be around 29 centimeters by 2050. However, we have carried out the same analysis for 66 points of the national territory, as there are differences depending on local conditions. To carry out such an analysis, taking IPCC data on global sea level rises to each location in Cuba can only be done if you are backed up by strong science.

Tarea Vida Is Working

The 2017-2020 “short-term” results of Tarea Vida are currently under evaluation. This period coincided with Donald Trump’s presidency and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration severely tightened US sanctions against Cuba, further obstructing its access to resources and finances. The pandemic further battered the economy through the loss of tourism revenues. Nonetheless, there have been tangible achievements: a massive 11 percent of the most vulnerable coastal homes have been relocated; coral farms have been set up; 380 km² of mangroves have been recovered, serving as a natural coastal defense; and 1 billion pesos were invested in the country’s hydraulic program. Reforestation programs since 1959 have raised forest cover to 30 percent.

What can other Global South countries learn from this? The Copenhagen Accord of December 2009 pledged climate funding to the developing world, rising to USD$100 billion annually by 2020. But this commitment hasn’t been met. “They count funding twice, count money promised but not delivered, count as donations money that’s given to a country that is actually returned because it is a loan,” complains Rey Santos. “International financing is totally weighted in favor of mitigation, which is a business. There is much less money for adaptation. Funding is extremely low for small island developing states [SIDS], which are among the most vulnerable groups.” He describes “beautiful” climate change plans produced to comply with international commitments, then filed away. In contrast, “in Cuba, Tarea Vida is a living process, a product of the system that generated it.”

Cuba’s access to international finance is more limited than other countries due to the US blockade, which prevents it from accessing multilateral development banks. It instead depends on bilateral cooperation and the United Nations for finance and cooperation. US pressure and sanctions don’t just hit Cuba directly, they are also targeted against its potential partners in third countries. For example, the United States prohibits the sale to Cuba of equipment in which 10 percent or more of the components are made by US companies.

The Cuban approach to climate adaptation and mitigation offers an alternative to the globally dominant paradigms based on the private sector or public-private partnerships. It has increasing relevance to tourism-dependent Caribbean SIDS (Small Island Developing States) and other Global South countries emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic with levels of indebtedness that will obstruct future access to international financing. This will bring them closer to the financial and resource restraints that Cuba has confronted for decades due to US sanctions. Tarea Vida relies on low-cost domestic solutions, not external funding.

Rey Santos cautions against trying to advance a climate agenda without addressing structural problems like extreme poverty and deep social and economic inequality. He says it is impossible to convert the world’s energy matrix from fossil fuels to renewable energies without reducing consumption levels when there are insufficient resources to produce the solar panels and wind turbines required or insufficient space to host them. “If you automatically made all transportation electric tomorrow, you would have the same problems of congestion, parking, highways, and heavy consumption of steel and cement,” he points out. “There must be a change in the way of life, in our aspirations. This is part of the debate about socialism, part of Che Guevara’s ideas on the ‘new man.’ Without forming that new human, it is very difficult to confront the climate issue.” A plan like Tarea Vida requires a vision that is not directed toward profit or self-interest. “It must be premised on social equity and rejecting inequality. A plan of this nature requires a different social system, and that is socialism,” he concludes.

Clearly, this political economy framework doesn’t exist in other SIDS. But with the COP26 summit in Glasgow again showing governments’ lack of determination to act on the climate and their refusal to encroach on private interests, the Cuban approach of using environmental science, natural solutions, and community participation can provide examples of best practice to those who do want to confront climate disaster.

The online premiere of the author’s documentary Cuba’s Life Task: Combating Climate Change takes place on YouTube on Tuesday, January 11 at 2 p.m. ET. It will remain available for viewing, with subtitles in multiple languages.

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Helen Yaffe is a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow. She is the author of We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People have Survived in a Post-Soviet World and Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution.

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