‘The Time for Talk is Done’: Prime Minister of Bahamas at Loyola Climate Forum

Rising sea levels and intense storms directly affect the island nation.

Bahamian Prime Minister Philip E. Davis visited the Schreiber Center at Loyola’s Water Tower Campus to speak on a panel about the realities of climate change Sept. 11. 

The climate forum was moderated by Karen Weigert, an executive lecturer and the director of the Baumhart Center for Social Enterprise & Responsibility. Davis and Weigert were also joined by Dr. Chuck Knapp, vice president of conservation research at Shedd Aquarium, and Ryan Burg, principal business analyst at Illinois electric company ComEd. 

Davis entered Wintrust Hall to applause from the audience and was asked by Weigert to open the forum.

“It is true that when everyone thinks about the Bahamas, you think about the sand, the sea and the sun,” Davis said. “And yes, those are reality.”

But Davis said 80% of their country’s landmass is less than three meters above sea level, which is threatened by rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.

In 1971, the United Nations General Assembly established the “least developed country” category, according to their website. Countries under this designation then receive additional financial and technical support from the U.N. 

Because the Bahamas is not underdeveloped and is considered a “graduated” country by the U.N., Davis said they don’t receive the financial support underdeveloped countries do after natural disasters.

“We are the frontlines,” Davis said. “We suffer more from hurricanes and we’re not getting any support. What we’re getting? Commitments, pledges but no action.”

Environmental science and climate change professor Richard DiMaio was in attendance and said he’d been to the Bahamas three times. He said the Bahamas is the third-most impacted country by hurricanes behind Japan and the Philippines. 

In September 2019, category five Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas with 180 mph winds and a storm surge greater than 18 feet, according to the National Weather Service. It was the “strongest known tropical system to impact the Bahamas.”

Davis said Dorian was the most devastating hurricane the world had seen in centuries and cost the Bahamas $3.4 billion to recover. Years before, hurricanes Matthew and Joaquin cost the country additional hundreds of millions of dollars.

Two months after he took office in 2021, Davis said he attended COP 26 — the U.N.’s annual Conference of the Parties to discuss climate change — where leaders spoke on “the existential threat of climate change and its consequences.”

Davis said it was essential to keep the average global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit — a number decided on by the U.N. in the 2015 Paris Agreement created at COP 21.

“Our lives and livelihoods are threatened, and they’re still talking,” Davis said. “Our yesterday could very well be your tomorrow if nothing happens.”

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden brought the United States back into the Paris Agreement after former President Donald Trump left the pact in November 2021, according to the Associated Press.

“The time for talk is done, and action is required now,” Davis said. “Because none of us are safe on this planet until all of us are safe.”

Davis’ action in the Bahamas includes working to decarbonize his country’s electricity by using less fossil fuels. He said Ragged Island in the southern Bahamas is now completely solar, a $5 million project completed in August 2022, according to The Nassau Guardian.

He also added they are looking to further implement biofuels and electric vehicles. 

In the U.S., Biden’s goal is for 50% of all vehicle sales to be electric by 2030, according to the White House. California led this charge by passing a rule in August 2022 ensuring all vehicles sold in 2035 will be zero-emission.

Continuing Davis’ thought, Weigert directed the conversation to Shedd Aquarium’s Knapp who said they recently installed 913 solar panels on the Abbott Oceanarium roof. He also spoke to coral reef research he’s overseeing in the Florida Keys.

“It’s more important now than ever when we’re having the sea level rise, we’re seeing these impacts of hurricanes on low-lying countries like the Bahamas,” Knapp said. “More than ever, we need the near-shore protection that coral reefs provide, but we’re also losing that because of climate change, losing that because of certain diseases.”

A quarter of the ocean’s coral reef is damaged, potentially beyond repair, according to Shedd’s website. This is primarily caused by pollution and fishing practices.

Weigert pivoted the conversation to electric grids, turning to Burg.

ComEd services 4 million customers across northern Illinois — around 70% of Illinois’ population, according to their website. Burg said Chicago’s climate risks are defined by extremes with hot summers and cold winters. 

Burg explained how ComEd has divided the electric grid in order to service specific regions throughout Illinois. Similarly, in the Bahamas — which is made up of around 700 islands, 29 of which are populated — Davis said each island has its own independent grid and generator.

DiMaio said he felt Davis wanted to be prime minister because he truly wanted to help the people in the Bahamas.

“You’re listening to the prime minister of a country talk in such an informed way, not only about his country — which every prime minister should — but scientifically, as well,” DiMaio said. 

Weigert, the panel’s moderator, told The Phoenix it’s important when a leader of a nation, facing the threat of rising sea levels and growing storms, can speak on what’s happened and what could happen in a deep way.

She said the prime minister’s team knew her from her work as the city of Chicago’s first Chief Sustainability Officer and reached out for Davis’ “historic” visit to Chicago.

“I think that Loyola, with its strong tradition in social justice and its commitment to environmental sustainability, is a fabulous place for these kinds of conversations,” she said. “I think it’s exactly the right kind of discussion to have, and I don’t think we should be surprised that global leaders recognize that and want to speak with us.”

Davis was hesitant but said he still plans to attend COP 27 in the United Arab Emirates from November to December.

“I am an optimist,” Davis said. “I was having second thoughts about going, but my colleagues said I have to go. I still see it continuing to be a talk show.”

Featured image by Austin Holder / The Phoenix

Austin Hojdar

Austin Hojdar