Saturday, November 3, 2012

Climate Change and the Caribbean

Nov. 3, 2012

With Hurricane Sandy still vividly imprinted on everyone’s mind, it is important to remember that the storm’s destruction did not begin once the storm came ashore off the coast of New Jersey. Before the storm made landfall, it took the lives of 70 people, the majority occurring in Haiti (54) and Cuba (11), but also in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas. While many regard the Caribbean as being blessed with warm tropical waters and white sandy beaches, it has also been cursed by geography, as it sits in what can best be understood as “Hurricane Alley.” The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Climate Change Center has stated that “The two dozen island nations of the Caribbean, and the 40 million people who live there, are in a state of increased vulnerability to climate change. Higher temperatures, rises in sea level, and increased hurricane intensity threaten lives, property and livelihoods throughout the region.”


Just as Hurricane Sandy was described as a “Frankenstorm” because it was a combination of the worst possible scenarios, the Caribbean has been dealing with increasingly intense storms—the result of which has torn at the economic, social, and political fabric of the region. Norman Girvan, of the University of the West Indies reflected that “30 years ago, one expected to deal with major disasters of this kind, say, once every ten years. Nowadays, most islands expect at least one, and possibly two or three, every year. In other words this now has to be seen as a permanent, recurring phenomenon or integral feature of Caribbean development.”

According to Princeton University Geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer, "Climate change will probably increase storm intensity and size simultaneously, resulting in a significant intensification of storm surges.” David Enfield, a senior scientist at the University of Miami and former physical oceanographer at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated that "The severe hurricanes might actually become worse. We may have to invent a category 6."

Perhaps out of necessity, CARICOM has avoided politicizing the issue of climate change, choosing instead to develop ways how to both minimize and cope with its undesirable and unpredictable effects. As far back as 1994, Barbados hosted the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States. This resulted in the emergence of the Caribbean Planning for Adaptation to Climate Change (CPACC) project. The plan sought to integrate the impacts of climate change into the planning strategies of the region and strengthening technical capacity. Despite these moves, Mother Nature has been insistent on not giving the region a break from the intense storms.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan leveled Grenada, damaging 90% of the homes on the island and killing 12. The island literally looked like it had been hit by an atomic bomb. The Prime Minister’s own home was flattened, and he had to relocate his office and residence to a British Naval ship. Not surprisingly, the storm decimated the island’s agriculture industry as well. At the time it was the most powerful hurricane to hit the Caribbean in a decade.

Hurricane Wilma later surpassed Ivan's power in 2005, claiming the lives of 12 in Haiti, four in Cuba, and one in the Bahamas and Jamaica. In 2007, while not as powerful as Wilma, Hurricane Dean took 28 lives in the Caribbean. In 2010, Hurricane Tomas smashed into St. Lucia, causing an estimated $500 million in damages. The hurricane destroyed the island’s banana crop, severely damaged the John Compton dam, washed out crucial roads, and took the lives of 14 people. To put things in perspective, the United States is over 1800 times the size of St. Lucia in regards to population; on this basis it would be equivalent to the United States dealing with $916,000,000,000 in damages.

Given that much of the Caribbean is already in a dire economic situation, their ability to rebuild is severely hampered. Each super storm chips away at already scarce infrastructure, increasing the debt burden of these nations and placing them in a more precarious situation. Unfortunately, the impact of climate change in the Caribbean is not confined to hurricanes however—the Caribbean also has to deal with the rising water levels and rising temperatures.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted in 2007 that the global average sea level would rise between seven and 23 inches by the end of this century. This would have a significant impact on the low-lying islands of the Bahamas and Anguilla. It would also submerge many of the region’s beaches and deal the tourism industry a critical blow. Because the Caribbean is highly dependent on tourism, a decline in tourism would rob many governments of their most important tax base—resulting in declining support for healthcare, education, and infrastructure.

Furthermore, 2010 saw a sharp spike in ocean temperatures in the Caribbean. The increased temperatures lead to widespread coral deaths. In 2005, 80% of corals were bleached and as many as 40% died in areas on the eastern side of the Caribbean. Scientists studying corals in the Caribbean reported that the damage to corals in 2010 were more devastating than in 2005. It is estimated that 80% of marine life is found in coral reefs and that these reefs are found in only 1% of the ocean territory.

Thus the impact on reefs has social and economic consequences. In the Caribbean, fisheries employ nearly 200,000 people, noted Dr. Leonard Nurse of the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies at the University of the West Indies. Furthermore, the industry earns USD $5 billion to $6 billion per year in foreign exchange and providing about 10% of the region's protein intake. As another example of the Caribbean’s near total dependency on tourism, dive tourism and recreational fishing are also important revenue sources. In 2000, one study estimated dive tourism and fisheries in the Caribbean provided an economic value between $3.1 billion and $4.6 billion. In a compounding manner, the rising sea levels would create higher storm surges during hurricanes, and the warming ocean waters would fuel stronger storms.

When it comes to discussing climate change in the Caribbean, the sharp inequalities in power and resources come to light. Despite climate change posing a major threat to their survival—and their playing an insignificant impact on carbon emissions—the small countries of the Caribbean have extremely limited influence on the decisions being made (or not made). Extend this inequality to matters of trade and finance and the region is not only at a major disadvantage in preparing for and coping with disasters, both economic and environmental, but it is also being assaulted on many fronts by issues they cannot control.

Dr. Givan best articulated the seriousness of the situation when he remarked that “When you combine acute climate change-related stress of this kind with (a) the acute economic stress arising out of erosion of trade preferences and the failure to develop a new 'insertion' into the global economy, (b) fiscal stress due to unsustainable debt burdens and the impact of the global economic crisis; and (c) the seeming incapacity of governments to control the impact of transnational crime; one must wonder if we are not in fact experiencing an overlapping and interconnected series of challenges which in their totality, challenge the assumptions underlying the ‘national statehood’ dispensation of the region.”

Knowing that it is hard to see any bright spots coming out of such a devastating event like Hurricane Sandy, perhaps it will force the issue of climate change onto the political agenda in such a way that it will be impossible to ignore. The Caribbean has not had the luxury to ignore climate change because they were affected in more acute ways via hurricanes, rising sea levels, and warming currents. Hurricane Sandy has shown that this is now changing.

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