Cuba’s Life Task: Combating Climate Change

Really interesting documentary about the Cuban government’s push for tackling climate change. They formed Tarea Vida, or Life Task, as a strategic plan for dealing with climate change in both the short and long term in 2017.

Unlike in most places where the populace is desperately crying out for their government to do something, Cuba’s dynamic is reversed. Climate change was taken seriously by the government there, perhaps because its unique political outlook recognised that environmental destruction was an obvious consequence of capitalist exploitation. Perhaps because it has highly educated population who are more likely to be scientifically literate. Perhaps because, as a country, it punches drastically above its weight in terms of its scientists, especially in biological sciences. Perhaps because there is less of a sense of scientists forming part of an elite, remote from the general population, and therefore more likely to retain public faith and credibility. Whatever the reason, convincing the state that action needed to be taken on climate change was not the struggle it has been elsewhere.

In fact this film shows how the government is leading on this issue, and part of their work is ensuring that everyone in society understands how this will impact them directly. This is not viewed as a scientific issue which requires a technological response. It is viewed as a life-and-death issue, which requires a social response. The attitude of the state is that what is at stake is nothing less than the existence of the island itself, and human life on it.

The challenge is on how to filter down that political will into action on the ground. A big task considering it impacts on virtually every aspect of life. The first step is awareness, understanding what climate change is, and how it is responsible for some of the events which are happening now. So there are school programs, incorporating teaching about the natural world and how climate change influences it. But also after-school groups where kids work on projects to do with the environment, whether that is as simple as a litter pick, or something more involved like a school garden.

It also has to involve the world of work, every sector of the economy, and food production. Weirdly, the absolute shitshow Cuba’s economy became after the fall of the Soviet Union actually has some positive legacy in that area, because people have been encouraged to cultivate urban gardens for food self-sufficiency since the 90s. So it’s really a matter of getting their environmental impact down to as close to zero as possible.

Cuba’s contribution to global emissions is less than 1%, but the impetus there to reduce their emissions is huge. Because despite being the minority of the problem, they are feeling the effects of climate change already. The coastline is eroding and the sea level is rising. As a long, skinny island with a high percentage of their surface area in contact with the coast, this literally means seeing the island disappear. Entire communities, villages, settlements, are just going underwater every year.

And that’s the challenge, because although there is government willingness to build new homes inland and move people away from the coast, there is a reluctance in parts of the population to go. We meet one fisherman who says, when it floods, he just takes the front and back door off, and moves his furniture upstairs. He says if there is one brick left standing after the flood, he will rebuild. He ain’t going nowhere.

And that’s what you’re seeing, people are already adapting to the effects of climate change. Life Task isn’t just focused on prevention, as Cuba’s aware that if they cut emissions to zero, and the rest of the world continues to produce them, then, in the words of one scientist, “we’ll all still die”. Plus damage has already been done, even without it being an irreversible change. So many of the projects and provisions are focused on how to we protect ourselves from unpredictable weather effects and rising sea levels, that are already having an impact upon people.

So there is some good news, even with this first phase taking place during the Covid pandemic and increased American sanctions. Farmers are diversifying their crops and taking measures to deal with the floods and droughts brought about by rainfall instability. Since the revolution, Cuba has doubled the area of forests on the island, helping prevent soil erosion. Things are moving in the right direction.

It’s heartening to actually see real progress happening at a national level. And while this whole film is about the challenges, it is also about not declaring defeat just because the odds are against you.