Prime Minister Philip Davis’ Remarks at the 17th Annual CSB/SJU Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture Series

Good evening, everyone.

Special greetings to:  Abbot John Klassen; Prioress Karen Rose; President Brian Breuss, and Mrs. Breuss; Board of Trustees Chair, LeAnne Stuart, as well as members of the Board; Faculty and Staff of both institutions; members of the Bahamian delegation who have joined me on this historic trip; and finally, CSB and SJU students and alumni.

Ladies and gentlemen, 

It is a pleasure to be here in Minnesota, though I must admit, it is quite a bit chillier than the temperatures I left in The Bahamas!

Fortunately, despite the cold weather, the reception we’ve received has been warm and inviting.

It is a privilege to be with you tonight to deliver the 17th annual Eugene McCarthy Lecture. My sincere thanks to Dr. Breuss and Dr. Lindstrom for the invitation. I applaud the McCarthy family for building on the legacy of Eugene McCarthy – a tremendous human being, leader, and tireless advocate for fundamental freedoms and human rights.  

CSB/SJU-Bahamas Connection

For those who aren’t aware, there are over 1,500 Bahamian Johnnies and Bennies who are proud to count themselves among your alumni.  Many of them have gone on to make amazing contributions to our nation, just as they have to your institutions. 

In recognition of the positive impact your institutions have had on the attainment of tertiary education, The Government of The Bahamas established a scholarship fund to assist Bahamians who receive scholarships from CSB and SJU with additional scholarship funds to support their education.

During the pandemic, when we were temporarily unable to continue granting these scholarships, SJU and CSB stepped in to fill the gap. 15 Bahamians who would not have been able to attend college that year were able to continue their tertiary education. 

We are profoundly grateful for your continued faith and investment in the education of Bahamian students throughout the years.  

I recall that there are quite a number of senior civil servants – including permanent secretaries, senators, and elected Members of Parliament – who have benefitted from a CSB/SJU education.

I can also think of numerous Bahamian journalists, priests, lawyers, educators, and star athletes who have attended the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

Many of them returned home to become nation-builders of the highest calibre. 

In this very room, we have noted Bahamian financial leader, Philip Galanis, class of ‘75, who is a member of the CSB/SJU Board of Trustees; we have former Supreme Court Justice and Chair of the Bahamas Securities Commission, the Honourable Neville Adderley, class of ‘67; and we have Permanent Secretaries Creswell Sturrup and Luther Smith, class of 74 and class of 72.

We have the Executive Director of the Small Business Development Center, Samantha Rolle, class of ’04, Senator Barry Griffin, Vice-President of the Senate, class of ’09, Second-Secretary in the Bahamas High Commission in London Justin Smith, class of ’21, and we have Minnesota-based businessman, Prince Wallace, class of ’68.

I knew Prince when we were much younger. He ended up falling in love with a Minnesotan girl and never quite made it back home. But we still count him among our sons of the soil. 

The alumni present in this room can give you just a glimpse at the great things that Bahamian Johnnies and Bennies have gone on to achieve.

What characterises all of them is their commitment to servant-leadership, their dedication to giving back to the communities from which they’ve come.

On a much wider scale, Benedictine education has played a tremendous roles in the lives of many Bahamians. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has made, and continues to make, an outstanding contribution to education in The Bahamas, not only in bringing St. John’s and St. Benedict’s to us, but in equipping thousands of Bahamian students with a world-class education.

I happen to have my own surprising connection to St. John’s University myself, in the form of a former teacher of mine, who was an alumnus, and, it turns out, happened to be classmates with Eugene McCarthy himself.

Despite the vastness of our planet, it can be amazing to see how interconnected the human experience can be.

Here we are as a Bahamian delegation, over 1,700 miles away from home, yet we have still encountered such a sense of connection, familiarity, and camaraderie.

Even when I visited the SJU website, I was greeted by a graduate wearing a black, gold, and aquamarine sash atop his gown. On that sash, I saw the Bahamian Coat of Arms. 

That student was the 2023 President of SJU’s Student Senate, Durran Thompson.

And just last month, his fellow Johnnie, Jervon Sands, made us all proud by becoming the fourth Bahamian Rhodes Scholar and fourth ever from St. John’s and St. Benedict.

A Nation on the Frontlines

I was particularly proud to hear that Jervon will go on to study Environmental Change and Sustainability.

He is among a growing population of bright young Bahamians who are dedicating themselves to promoting sustainability, protecting the environment, and preparing our nation for a new climate reality.

I am pleased that it’s not only young Bahamians who are so committed.

I understand that nine days ago, when were in Dubai for the COP28 UN Climate Conference, two young American students came to visit The Bahamas Pavilion. I am sorry that I was not there to welcome them personally, so: may I ask Thomas and Finn to please stand?

Gentlemen: it speaks volumes about your commitment to environmental sustainability that you travelled halfway around the world to attend such a major international gathering.

And we are grateful that in the thousands of options and opportunities available, you chose to seek out The Bahamas.

Hopefully next time we greet you, it will not be in Dubai or Minnesota, but in The Bahamas itself.

You will be, most welcome. Thank you.

Since coming into office in September 2021, I have sounded the alarm across the globe on the urgent need for action on climate change.

I am certain that members of your Climate Justice Club are also quite aware of the need for greater coordinated global action on climate change.

For many people in the world, especially those who live in developed cities away from any low-lying coastal areas, the threat posed by climate change may seem remote at times.

But for Small Island Developing States on the frontlines, climate change has already had a destructive impact.

The last major hurricane to hit Bahamian shores, Hurricane Dorian, had maximum gusts of over 220 miles per hour.

Imagine a storm the size of the state of Georgia, with winds the strength of a fairly strong tornado, bombarding our islands for several days. That is what the people of our northern islands experienced.

Entire settlements were flattened by gale-force winds and 20-foot-high storm surges that sent flood waters pouring over rooftops.

Over a third of our national debt can be attributed directly to the multiple category 4 and 5 storms that have hit us over the past few years. Hurricane Dorian alone cost my country over three billion US dollars.                                                                                                         

But the true cost of a hurricane can’t be measured in dollars alone. There is the tragic loss of lives. And the ongoing traumatic toll it continues to take on the survivors.                                                                                                     

Despite it all, we remain strong. We are a resilient people dedicated to building back better. But we have paid a heavy price.

In fact, throughout the Caribbean, people are bearing the cost of the world’s inaction.      

In the wake of the world’s hottest summer on record, Jamaica suffered an acute dengue fever outbreak.

Barbados, Antigua and St. Lucia all struggle with water-scarcity.

And throughout the region, storm and flood-induced displacement, particularly of children, has reached unprecedented levels.

In fact UNICEF found that 761,000 children were internally displaced by storms in the Caribbean between 2014 and 2018.

Sadly, projections indicate that this is just the beginning.

Without change, we are doomed to experience even more flooding, historic bad hurricanes, and extreme weather events that will erode our economies along with our shorelines.

However, the effects of climate change are not limited to Small Island Developing States.  If carbon emissions are not significantly reduced, we will certainly not be alone in paying the price.

Already it is becoming clear that our yesterdays are fast becoming everyone’s tomorrow.

This year has been the hottest on record!

Where we have hurricanes, others are already experiencing tornadoes, forest fires and extreme flooding. 

The identified threshold that will signal a major tipping point is an average global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. This is the increase that is likely to generate irreversible consequences. 

Last year, the world already surpassed 1.15 degrees Celsius. Most estimates have us surpassing the 1.5-degree mark in about a decade. 

But the World Meteorological Association would tell you that we will first see the average global temperature spike past that mark by 2027. This means that the freshmen who began their studies this fall will see the world past this threshold by the time they are seniors.

But what does this all mean for you?

What Inaction Looks Like

Allow me to paint a picture for you of what continued global inaction will look like for the world of tomorrow – the world that you as young people will inherit.

There will be more droughts and wildfires. There will be hurricanes appearing in places they never appeared before – in places where the building code was never developed with hurricane-force winds in mind.

Agricultural changes will produce widespread food shortages that will make the food supply and inflation issues we experienced over the past three years seem minor by comparison.

Tropical diseases like Zika, Malaria, and Dengue Fever will expand geographically.

And anywhere from 40 to 200 million people will be displaced by 2050, creating the worst migrant crisis in human history. 

Of course, these migrants will flee to the world’s richest nations in search of a better life, placing further strain on those economies.
The climate crisis is currently costing the world about $16 million per hour, and has cumulatively cost up to 3 trillion dollars in losses since the year 2000, just a few years before many of you were born.

By the end of the century, it’s estimated that the combined effects of climate change will cost the US economy nearly $500 billion per year.

Despite not being near the ocean, Minnesota will not be exempt from these effects. The Minnesota Climate Pollution Control Agency has already noted an increase in storms and flooding, rising temperatures, and increased costs associated with responding to and preparing for these impacts.

Continued inaction means that even a state like Minnesota, many hundreds of miles from either US coast, will eventually pay a heavy price.

Climate change is like a wildfire slowly engulfing our community of nations. For now, the small island developing states are being set aflame, but eventually, if nothing is done, the entire community will burn.

And the only thing we need to do to guarantee our mutually assured destruction is nothing.

We need only maintain the status quo by continuing to take half-measures and half-steps when what we need are paradigm-shifting solutions.

The truth is that there is currently a very high volume of talk about climate change but a minuscule amount of action.

The Need for More Action

If climate change truly represents the existential threat that world leaders claim it is, that the science suggests it is, then we must go all in to win this fight.

Eugene McCarthy has a famous saying:

“Remember that the worst accidents occur in the middle of the road.”

We can no longer afford to have one foot on the gas pedal and the other on the brakes when it comes to climate change.

Just this past month, we saw progress at the UN climate change conference, COP 28, when a Loss and Damage Fund was finally agreed upon.

This was a victory for countries like The Bahamas that can experience losses and damage in the billions each time another climate-driven natural disaster strikes.

Together, the nations of the world pledged $700 million dollars to the Fund – a great first step – but just a first step. As I said, a single storm can cause billions in damages. 

The amount pledged covers approximately 0.2% of the damage developing nations are facing each year. And just in case you wanted to know what the breakdown of the pledged amounts looks like:

The host country, the United Arab Emirates, pledged $100 million, which was matched by Germany and surpassed by both Italy and France. The world’s third-largest economy, Japan, pledged $10 million.

And what about the two largest economies in the world? The US pledged $17.5 million while China has yet to make a commitment.

Of course, every step in the right direction is appreciated. But as the world gets closer to the tipping point from which there will be no return, we have to move past taking baby steps in the right direction and begin sprinting to our destination.

Surely, we can all do more.

And is it too much to expect that the wealthiest among us do a lot more?

Eugene McCarthy coined another well-known saying, when he said, “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.”

I believe the same logic applies to climate change. If I were to not criticize, to not push for more action, it would be a disservice to the people of my nation and the people of this world.

This means telling inconvenient truths, and yes, telling others when we expect more from them. This may not always be what our friends want to hear, but it’s what they need to hear.

At this year’s UN Climate Change Conference, COP 28, I openly challenged world leaders to do more, noting that “time is a luxury we do not have.” I told them that we were left wondering how we should interpret the pledges made by the wealthiest nations in the world. “So little was pledged, given what is needed. So late in the day, given what is forecast.”

When will they actually write the cheque?

I openly questioned whether the effort by global powers was intended to reduce the ‘noise pollution’ generated by our advocacy, rather than to address the carbon reduction and climate financing which is so urgently needed.

We will not and cannot remain quietly grateful as the world does the bare minimum. 

I remind you now, just as I did with the world leaders at COP 28, of the recent words of His Holiness, Pope Francis, exhorting those of us who are Leaders, to “demonstrate the nobility of politics, and not its shame”.

Sadly, the decisions we make do not reflect his advice.

We still live in a world where money always seems to be immediately available for the bullets and the bombs.

This is a choice.

We still live in a world where narrow economic interests continue to support and drive an increase in the burning of fossil fuels.

This is also a choice.

But we have no choice.

Not when climate change is actively destroying our world.

The greatest act of cowardice in this moment would be to sit in silence as the world moves ever closer to that dreaded tomorrow – that mutually assured destruction.

Silent acceptance of our fate is not an option. 

So, we will continue to advocate on behalf of climate-vulnerable nations across the world.

What the world needs is significantly greater amounts pledged to the loss and damage fund, many billions more pledged to renewable energy efforts, and billions more allocated to climate resilience and to phasing out fossil fuels. 

The Case for Climate Justice

Small Island Developing States like The Bahamas have contributed less than 1% of total global carbon emissions; yet, we are bearing the brunt of the consequences of climate change.

Not only do we not emit much carbon, but our oceans actually contain seagrass meadows that are proven to act as carbon sinks for entire regions.

We did not create this problem, but it’s ours to deal with anyway.

Some may wonder why it is the responsibility of wealthier nations, who have worked hard to achieve their success, to provide help to developing nations?

Well, first and foremost, it is now a settled principle that, it is fair and just that ‘the polluter pays’. 

Our strong view is that, in this regard, we must all embrace this principle.

Additionally: even the most cursory glance at history reveals how, in many ways, the developed world has generated much of its wealth from the riches of the developing world, without fair and adequate compensation for those resources. 

It was often the human capital and natural resources of the global south that took care of and fed the global north.

Given this history, I do not believe that requests for reciprocation and restoration are unreasonable.

This is why we call for climate justice. So that all people in the world, not just in our island nations, but marginalized people everywhere, have a fair shot at surviving the climate crisis.

And if the concept of justice is not enough to motivate action, then countries should at the very least act in their own enlightened self-interest. 

In this plight, we are all connected.

If the developing world is unable to withstand the barrage of climate change, the developed world will inevitably feel the repercussions. 

Now, I know there are some who, despite the convincing scientific data available, continue to debate the existence and nature of climate change.

Many alternate theories have emerged on the internet and in political circles.

While the science on climate change is quite clear, I believe that, even for the doubters among us, there is still a convincing argument to take greater action on climate change. Because, even where there is skepticism expressed by some, it is still better to take action and to find out later that it was not needed, than to do nothing and go on to live in a world filled with regret.

I also believe we’d all like to breathe cleaner air with less carbon and other pollutants.

I think we’d all like to live in a world with more trees and green spaces and healthier oceans.

We all want to live in a world where our beautiful islands, beaches, and coastlines are protected by sea walls and drainage systems; a world where more countries can have affordable and stable electrical supplies through investments in renewable energy.

I don’t believe there are many people in this world who would oppose such advances.

And that is precisely the tomorrow we are advocating for when we talk about the need to invest in climate justice and a climate-resilient future for every nation.

Charge to Students

I am advancing my call to action today, to the students in this audience, in recognition of our shared connection, our shared plight, and our mutual interests in creating a more climate-resilient world.

I am calling upon you to be agents of change in your homes, your communities, and your nation. 

Every effort counts.

While cultivating curiosity and pursuing knowledge along your educational journey, I encourage you to act on new understandings. Mobilise the knowledge and critical thinking you acquire from these institutions to drive change.

There has always been a lot of opportunity to solve the world’s biggest problems. Don’t shy away from taking on the big issues and answering the hard questions. It is quite possible to fashion a hugely rewarding career out of making a difference.

Also, never underestimate the power of a small change. Even the smallest of changes can add up to become something transformative. 

I’ve presented the problem that my nation and Small Island Developing States around the world are currently facing.

And the future implications for you are just as bad as they are for us.

What you do with that knowledge is critical.
Are you willing to be inconvenienced to preserve the future?

To what extent are you willing to make changes in your own lives to help address the issue? Are you willing to crank the heat down a few notches in the winter or the air conditioning a few notches up in the summer? Can we commit to changing the ways we travel and drive each day? 

As simple as some of these changes may be, it is admittedly very difficult to see how our individual efforts truly make a difference.

There is a name for that phenomenon. It’s called the diffusion of responsibility. This notion that, in a world full of people, someone else will make the sacrifice or address the problem. Not only does it impact individual choices. We can see how waiting on others to take action can affect entire governments and countries.

I believe that it is quite clear that we can no longer wait for others to be the change – not when the tipping point is just a few years away.

Your actions do not have to be limited to your daily choices either. For those of us who truly care about this issue, are you willing to influence and even challenge your peers? Are you willing to confront the systems around you, including this institution, your community, your family, and even your government? And do not overlook your ability to bring about change through government. 

Remember that every major political movement in history has included the involvement of young people. Political engagement is still the key to driving societal change through government action.

The levers of democracy are available for you to reach out and drive change right now.

Permit me to quote Mr. McCarthy once again in saying: “Whatever is morally necessary must be made politically possible.”

Climate justice is as much a moral issue as it is an environmental issue.

Given what we know about the current and future consequences of climate change, a critical question you must ask yourself is: where do I stand morally on this issue? What is my code of ethics surrounding actions taken on behalf of others? What is my view regarding focusing on the more immediate, important needs vs. a threat that won’t reach its apex until years from now? Am I capable or willing to sacrifice now for a future greater good?

The great thing about being a young person in the halls of academia is that you are allowed to actively figure these things out about yourself and your view of others. In fact, that is the whole point of you being here.

As I said, there has been a lot more talk than action on climate change. And there are very complex reasons for that. 

It’s not just a matter of the world being filled with selfish or bad people. One of the truths of life is that you don’t always have to be a bad person to contribute to a bad outcome. Simply staying quiet when it is time to speak up; being passive when it is time to act; or looking the other way until the problem is directly in front of you are all common ways that people allow the seeds of destruction to grow.

The concept of climate justice is nice to talk about but not always easy to deliver for those who must sacrifice. 

Helping other countries with the loss and damage they experienced costs a lot. Helping countries invest in resilient infrastructure and renewable energy will never be cheap. It may require re-allocations from domestic spending, it may require additional taxes, it may require certain other priorities being scaled down. 

What you are willing to accept as an individual will collectively define what you are willing to accept as a nation.

Unlike the exams you have taken this semester, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Although there are certainly very real and lasting consequences. 

Ultimately, you get to decide what the world you inherit will be like. 

Just remember that indecision and inaction can count as decisions, especially when urgent action is needed as the world slides ever so close to the tipping point from which there is no return. 

There is precious little time left. But there is still time. And as long as there is time left on the clock, there is still hope.

I choose to act in the name of hope.

And I hope that you will join me.

Thank you.