Justice for Islands that Suffer Most

By Gerry Boyle ’78Photography by Michael Hallahan
March 23, 2020

Human Geography

Stacy Ann Robinson
Stacy-ann Robinson
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies

For Stacy-ann Robinson, it’s personal.

Robinson grew up in Jamaica and has seen the destruction levied on the island by extreme storms. A human geographer and assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby, Robinson has also seen firsthand the challenges faced by Jamaica and places like it as they try to obtain resources needed to cope with the brunt of climate change.

The result is a body of global research that explores the bureaucratic and institutionalized obstacles faced by what are known as Small Island Developing States (SIDS) as they try to work with the biggest funders of climate change mitigation, adaptation, and research.

“One of the themes that underpin my work is justice,” Robinson said. “Sometimes it’s not explicit. But when I’m thinking about my work, I’m thinking, how can I connect these dots?”

She connects those dots in a continuous stream of scholarly papers: “Knowledge, attitudes, and practices of climate adaptation actors toward resilience and transformation,” and “Twenty-five years of adaptation finance through a climate justice lens,” among many others. Robinson and her colleagues carefully examine the ways institutions, from the United Nations to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have worked effectively—or not—with developing nations that are feeling the direct impacts of climate change, from extreme storms to rising sea levels to vanishing fisheries.

These small and under-resourced nations and states are disproportionately vulnerable to climate-related problems and are the least able to respond, both in the immediate and long term. Their size makes obtaining grant funding difficult when funders are looking for big impact for their investment, adding yet another obstacle to adjusting to life on a warming planet.

There are many, and not all are included in the literature around international environmental policy. That research may touch on the economic and social dimension of an environmental problem, and it may also examine technological aspects. But Robinson argues that many small island developing states are also wrapped in an extensive colonial history that may dictate how they are treated by financial and governmental entities to the north.

“If you aren’t considering the history of the problem, the solution might be insufficient,” she said.

In the Caribbean and elsewhere, that colonial history may be manifested in attitudes that have led to the geographic theories of disposability and expendability, referring to acceptance by world powers of disproportionately high human and infrastructure cost of natural disasters. In a paper now under review, written with two colleagues at Brown University, Robinson uses the example of Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria, examining the Federal Government’s response to the disaster in the context of the quasi-colonial relationship the United States has with its island territory.

Her scrutiny of these issues often revolves around how resources are brought to bear on the climate problem in small island developing states, where they are applied, what restrictions limit funding or prevent it from being awarded altogether. Are funds made available for disaster relief? For mitigation of future climate-related problems, such as reducing CO2 emissions? Or for adaptation to current and coming changes like rising water levels? What are the terms negotiated? Are they consistent and equitable?

And who makes the decisions regarding the islands’ futures? Not surprisingly, in most cases, it’s officials from the North who are not rooted in the affected country’s culture.

Having seen the destruction wrought by extreme weather events on the ground in Jamaica (in 2004, Hurricane Ivan left 18,000 Jamaicans homeless. And again in 2005, Hurricanes Emily and Dennis delivered a double blow to the island, causing billions of dollars in damage there and in the wider Caribbean region), Robinson takes pride in bringing what she describes as “an authentic voice” to her research.

That voice was honed by experience working in Jamaica’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, where she moved to the Economic Affairs Department and its environment and sustainable development desk. Robinson’s job was to track Jamaica’s involvement and progress with the implementation of multilateral environmental agreements (there were more than 20 of them at the time), a task that led her to the United Nations General Assembly, where she worked with negotiators from other small-island states.

“It became very obvious to me that there was a need for more research, that many of the small island developing states needed that support from academic research, from policy research that could strengthen their negotiating positions,” she said.

So Robinson set out to get that job done, earning her master’s degree in international development, with a specialization in environment and development. She also has post-graduate qualifications in environmental diplomacy and oceans law and policy, capped by a Ph.D. in global environmental change from the Australian National University.

She emerged as a scholar in what she calls a niche area, but one that is taking on increased importance as the climate changes. “While climate science is improving in terms of modeling and just how much information is out there on climate impacts, generally the focus on small islands has not kept pace,” Robinson said.

She is sharpening that focus with research that centers on the human, social, and policy dimensions of climate change adaptation in small island developing states. It’s a distinctly interdisciplinary approach, which is essential because, as Robinson puts it, “one theoretical perspective or one methodological approach will not give us the answers we need to solve a problem that is multifaceted.”

And with her roots in foreign service, she wants answers, not research for the sake of research alone. “It’s my personal philosophy that if you can’t use my research to do something, to effect some kind of change, then perhaps there is no reason for me to do my research,” she said.

There continues to be plenty of reason for Robinson’s research to continue. She makes a point of converting complex papers into three or four bullet-pointed policy recommendations, which she circulates. A policy on international climate change adaptation financing was read with interest by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia. Other papers have been carefully considered by agencies like the Green Climate Fund and the World Bank, among others.

Already this year, she has published “Geographies of vulnerability: a research note on human system adaptations in the Caribbean” (with Caroline Wren ’20), “Differential climate change impacts and adaptation responses in the Caribbean Lesser Antilles” (with Cindy Nguyen ’20); and teamed up with colleagues to publish “Transformational adaptation in Least Developed Countries: does expanded stakeholder participation make a difference?” Also, Robinson was invited to be a contributing author for a (Small Islands) working group’s contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an influential document due to be finalized in 2021.

Robinson continues to work to bring broad attention to the injustices that are rampant in the ways small island developing states bear the brunt of a problem that is not of their own making. “Maybe we’re not at the stage to correct it,” Robinson said, “but we should shed light on it. … Like, hey, there is a problem over here. This house is on fire.”