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Bahamian Prime Minister lays climate truth on the line in 17th annual McCarthy Lecture

Perhaps it was no great surprise that the most prominent guest in the 17-year history of the Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture invoked its namesake during a 35-minute speech on Monday night in the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater. Philip Davis, prime minister of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and the first sitting head of government ever to visit Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict, highlighted the deep connections his country has with SJU and CSB – including more than 1,600 graduates in the past century, more than any nation but the United States. Yet it was multiple references to McCarthy that resonated most during Davis’ address of a near capacity crowd of about 500 students, staff and alumni regarding the ever more urgent issue of climate change that faces all humanity – whether living in a small island nation in the middle of the ocean or the furthest polar land masses.

“Climate change is like a wildfire, slowly engulfing our community of nations,” said Davis, who has appealed to other world leaders at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change the past two years – including last week when he was in Dubai for the 28th Council of the Parties (COP). “We must go all in to win this fight. As Eugene McCarthy said, ‘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 brake.”

Davis ironically can count one of his Bahamian elementary teachers, Eugene Dupuch ’35, as a classmate of McCarthy – who served 22 years in Congress and was a candidate for President several times, most famously in 1968 when he lost the Democratic nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Almost 90 years after Dupuch and McCarthy matriculated as Johnnies, a loss and damage fund at COP28 finally pledged the support of $700 million by nations of the world, but Davis lamented that’s less than the threat of a single, violent storm and equal to 0.2% of the damage developing nations face each year. And, while the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Italy and France all made commitments of more than $100 million, the two largest economic powers have yet to get on board at such a level. America has pledged $17.5 million, and China has yet to make a pledge – while small island nations like The Bahamas total less than 1% of global carbon emissions.

“Of course, every step in the right direction is appreciated,” Davis said. “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 and begin sprinting. Eugene McCarthy said the greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism. I believe the same logic applies to climate change. If I were not to push for more action, it would be a disservice to the people of my nation and the people of the world. This means telling inconvenient truths and, yes, telling others when we expect more from them. It may not be what our friends want to hear, but it’s what they need to hear.

“Time is a luxury we do not have. How are we to interpret the pledges of the wealthiest nations? So little was pledged, given what was needed, so late in the day, given what is forecast. I question whether the amount intended was to reduce the noise pollution generated by our advocacy rather than address the carbon reduction and financing concern that is so urgently needed. We will not and cannot remain quietly grateful as the world does the bare minimum.”

Prime Minister Philip Davis with Jervon Sands '23

Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis (left) talks with Jervon Sands ’23 during a visit to the CSB and SJU Multicultural Center on Monday prior to Davis’ McCarthy Lecture appearance.

Warns of irreversible consequences 

Experts have increasingly warned of irreversible consequences if Earth’s average temperature rises 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Last year, the hottest on record, propelled that measurement past the 1.15-degree mark, and estimates have shown 1.5 degrees could be eclipsed as soon as 2027, according to the World Meteorological Association.

That would be by the time this year’s first-year students – which include 19 Bahamians – make it to graduation. When they get there, they will add to a proud legacy Davis called out among those from The Bahamas in the audience, ranging from the Hon. Neville Adderley ’67, a former Supreme Court justice who is chair of the Bahamian Securities Commission, to Jervon Sands ’23, who less than a month earlier became the fourth Rhodes Scholar in not only the history of the two schools but also from his country. Between them, Johnnies and Bennies have become senior civil servants, permanent secretaries, senators, elected members of parliament, journalists, priests, lawyers, educators and athletes who helped bring about the country’s independence just 50 years ago and frame what it is today.

“I was particularly proud to hear that Jervon will go on to study environmental change and sustainability,” Davis said of Sands’ scholarship to the University of Oxford beginning next October in the United Kingdom. “He is among a population of bright, young Bahamians who are dedicating themselves to promoting sustainability, protecting the environment, and preparing our nation for a new climate reality.”

Davis’ country of 400,000 people suffered more than $3 billion in losses four years ago to Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that had wind gusts of more than 220 mph. It resulted in hundreds either killed or missing and presumed lost and made more than 70,000 homeless. One-third of the national debt stems from it and other storms in less than a decade.

“Imagine a storm the size of the state of Georgia with the winds of a fairly strong tornado, bombarding our islands for several days,” he said. “Entire settlements were flattened. Twenty-foot-high storm surges sent floodwater pouring over rooftops. Despite it all, we remain strong. We are a resilient people, dedicated to building back better. But we have paid a heavy price … If carbon emissions are not reduced, we will certainly not be alone in paying that price.

“There will be hurricanes in places they never appeared before,” Davis added. “Agricultural changes will produce widespread food shortages that will make the food supply and inflation issues we experienced over the past few years seem minor by comparison. Tropical diseases will expand geographically, and anywhere from 40-200 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. And, despite not being near the ocean, Minnesota will not be exempt from these effects.”

Prime Minister Philip Davis looks at The Saint John's Bible

Davis gets a guided tour of The Saint John’s Bible from Tim Ternes (left).

Plea for loss-and-damage pledges, renewable energy, phasing out fossil fuels

In addition to greater amounts pledged to the loss and damage fund, Davis called for many billions of dollars more pledged to renewable energy, climate resilience and phasing out fossil fuels.

“People throughout the Caribbean are bearing the costs of the world’s inaction,” Davis said. “It is fair and just that the polluters pay. Countries should, at the very least, act in their own enlightened self-interest. We are all connected. If the developing world is unable to withstand the impact of climate change, the developed world will inevitably feel the repercussions. Our yesterdays are fast becoming everyone’s tomorrow. The only thing we need to do to assure our mutually guaranteed destruction is nothing.”

Davis has witnessed monumental change. Born in 1951, oldest of eight children, he grew up working odd jobs to help his mother, a domestic worker, and his father, a fireman, make ends meet. He passed the bar exam in 1975, served 10 years in the Bahamian parliament and, as recent as from 2012-17 when he was minister of public works and urban development, he ensured around 1,000 homes, in both the Family Islands and New Providence, were provided with indoor toilets and potable water.

Earlier this year, Davis entertained Vice President Kamala Harris, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit The Bahamas since the country gained its independence in 1973. And in October he became the first Bahamian prime minister to visit The Vatican and the Pope.

Monday night, he called on everyone listening to be agents of change in their homes, communities and nations.

“Never underestimate the power of small changes,” Davis said. “They can add up to something transformative. Are you willing to be inconvenienced for the future? To what extent? 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?

“Do not overlook your ability to bring about change through government. Every major political movement in history has included the involvement of young people. The levers of democracy are available to you to drive change right now. As Eugene McCarthy said, ‘Whatever is morally necessary must be made politically possible.’ Climate justice is as much a moral issue as an environmental one. You don’t 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’s time to act. Or looking the other way until the problem is directly in front of you. Those are all common ways people allow the seeds of destruction to grow.

“There is precious little time left, but as long as there is time on the clock, there is hope.”

Philip Davis receiving doctorate

LeAnne Matthews Stewart ’87 presents an honorary Doctor of Laws from Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s to Davis while Bahamian members of the CSB and SJU Student Senates look on.

Prime Minister Philip Davis

Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis answers questions following his McCarthy Lecture on Monday night at the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater.

Students, alums greet Davis on whirlwind tour

After a Sunday night dinner and reception with alumni, state business, education and government leaders in Excelsior, Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis and his entourage spent all of Monday at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s. In the morning, he met with President Brian Bruess and his wife, Carol, as well as Abott John Klassen and Prioress Karen Rose and other school dignitaries at Renner House. Later, Davis toured the Multicultural Center and had lunch with a variety of student groups at the Gorecki Conference and Dining Center.

Moving to Collegeville, he toured the Abbey and University Church and met members of the monastery, saw the new Abbey Woodworking and Organ Building, The Saint John’s Pottery Studio, the McCarthy Center, Alcuin Library and The Saint John’s Bible Project, and a documentary about The Bahamas by Extending The Link.

Dr. Matt Lindstrom, director of the McCarthy Center, organized most of the events and SJU sophomore Ilan White, whose suggestion sparked the idea that culminated with Monday night’s lecture, introduced Davis. When he was finished speaking, and after a brief question-and-answer session hosted by Brittany Merritt Nash – an associate professor of history who is working on a book about the Bahamian connection with CSB and SJU, Davis was given an honorary Doctor of Laws from the schools by President Brian Bruess and LeAnne Matthews Stewart ’87, who is chair of the common boards of trustees. The lecture was livestreamed and archived for review.

“I was very moved that he would come here and see what we are doing and shine a light on Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s for the Bahamian people,” said Christianna Wallace, a CSB senior from Eleuthera, an island in The Bahamas. “It’s a historic event and I’m proud to say I was here to be a part of it.”

Aubrey Sherman, a junior communication major from Nassau, said Davis’ trip will further strengthen the schools’ connection to The Bahamas.

“It’s meaningful,” Sherman said. “It’s going to bridge the connections we’ve already made and it’s important for Bahamians to see what their Bennies and Johnnies are doing. Often, they only see the aftermath. But what happens on these campuses is a real incubator for the things we want to be able to do when we get back home.”

Twice in the past seven years, the Bahamian government signed a memorandum of understanding with Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s that committed government scholarships of between $11,000 and $16,000 for priority majors. Samantha Rolle ’04, executive director of the Bahamian small business development center, and Barry Griffin ’09, vice president of the Bahamian Senate, both were in Davis’ traveling party and said the trip likely will go a long way toward solidifying that for the future.

Currently, there are 32 Bennies, 25 Johnnies and three graduate students at the School of Theology and Seminary who are from The Bahamas, according to Alex Schleper ’87, director of international admission. That includes 11 seniors, 12 juniors and 15 sophomores, 19 first-year students and 11 members of the CSB and SJU student senates.

In January, Nash will lead a group including 11 students for a week in The Bahamas to study its history, government, culture and climate and economic challenges. In February, Schleper will travel there and meet with prospective students. And in March, Fr. Nick Kleespie will lead a spring break service trip and President Brian Bruess will lead a delegation from Institutional Advancement and the Alumni Association to make school visits and meet with alumni and parents of current students.

In April, 10-20 admitted Bahamian applicants will visit campus in advance of coming to CSB and SJU next fall.

Brian Bruess and Philip Davis

Brian Bruess helps kick off Davis’ tour of campus on Monday morning at Renner House.

Philip Davis at the McCarthy Center

A visit to Saint John’s wouldn’t have been complete without a stop at the McCarthy Center, where Davis engaged a group of political science students on Monday afternoon.

Philip Davis reviews a Bahamian display

Davis reviews a display commemorating the connection between The Bahamas and CSB and SJU. This year is the 50th anniversary of Bahamian independence, but the roots at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s extend back more than 100 years.