In 2017, Hurricane Maria swept across the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, taking lives, destroying homes, and damaging the natural landscape that sustains the tourism industry which the 270-square-mile island relies on. The storm’s overall cost to Dominica was an estimated US$930 million, almost double the country’s GDP. Maria went on to cause havoc in Puerto Rico, directly and indirectly killing more than 2,900 people. It was the deadliest storm Puerto Rico and Dominica had experienced in more than a century.
Just two weeks prior, both islands had been hit by Irma, which became a Category 5 hurricane during its lifecycle. More than one hurricane of that magnitude in the same season had previously been unheard of.
In recent years, the Caribbean has seen its hurricane season — from June to November — become more destructive. The change has been attributed to global warming due to climate change, a crisis that many have been warning for decades could have particularly devastating effects for the Caribbean. With the glaring evidence of crushed infrastructure, homes, and lives, more people seemed prepared to listen and take action. But much of the increase in global temperatures seems irreversible, and effects will get worse.
What experts and activists hope for now is that temperatures won’t rise to a point where they threaten the very existence of small islands like Dominica. “I come to you straight from the front lines of the war on climate change,” said Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit in a heartfelt appeal to the UN General Assembly, shortly after Maria’s passage. “We as a country and as a region did not start this war against nature. We did not provoke it. The war has come to us. There is no more time for conversation. There is little time left for action.”
The global mean temperature (GMT) has been increasing rapidly following the Industrial Revolution, largely due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases generated by humans’ use of fossil fuels. By 2030, it is predicted to increase by one degree Celsius over what it was in 1880. The repercussions of that are already being felt. Among them: stronger storms, rising sea levels that cause coastal erosion, droughts that reduce the water supply and crop yields, and the acidification of the ocean, killing coral reefs — which are habitats for fish, and major tourist attractions.
Beyond 2030, the GMT is inevitably going to increase by at least 1.5 degrees Celsius, and international bodies and scientists are racing against time to keep it there, through various efforts — called mitigation — to reduce the production of greenhouse gases. In the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, 197 countries agreed to do all they could to keep global warming well below two degrees Celsius and to regularly report their progress.
But countries not only have to work on mitigation, they have to pursue adaptations that make them less vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Those adaptations are particularly important for small, poor, sea-dependent countries.
“Countries are going to disappear if we don’t take action,” says Carlos Fuller, a senior official with the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, or 5Cs, the regional body set up in 2002 to help climate change efforts in the region. It’s a source of project funding, research, advice, and consultation.
“Our coral reefs will not be able to survive, and so our fish will migrate out of the Caribbean,” says Fuller. “And if our coral reefs die, why are tourists going to come into the Caribbean?”
The Caribbean Community as a body has pledged to draw almost half of its energy from renewable instead of fossil fuel sources by 2030. Individual countries have pledged more. And adaptation efforts have slowly been getting off the ground — too slowly.
For example, two American environmental entrepreneurs are experimenting with land-based coral farms to grow warming-resilient corals to replenish decimated reefs. Conservationists have been growing corals in sea-based nurseries in Grenada, Bonaire, Curaçao, the Cayman Islands, and elsewhere in the region. But the sea exposes them to same harm faced by naturally grown coral. On land, corals can be farmed in large numbers.
“There is hope that we can make a significant difference. I’ve watched reefs come back to life from reef restoration,” one of the entrepreneurs, twenty-nine-year-old Gator Halpern, said in a video posted online by UN Environment, after he was named Young Champion of the Earth for Latin America and the Caribbean last year.
In another climate adaptation project, a US$27 million water facility was launched in Barbados last May, which uses solar energy and is built to be more resistant to natural disasters. “The project will provide a replicable framework for countries of the Eastern Caribbean,” said Wilfred Abrahams, the Barbados minister of energy and water resources, at the launch ceremony.
In Dominica, meanwhile, five thousand new homes are being constructed to be hurricane-resistant. Housing complexes will be built with underground utility lines and infrastructure made of reinforced concrete and hurricane-impact glass.“The housing programmes have new designs where not even a Category 5 hurricane would significantly impact it,” Joseph Isaac, Dominica’s environment minister, told a reporter.
The housing project is being financed by Dominica’s Citizenship by Investment programme, which offers citizenship to those who can afford to pay the price. Money for the Barbados water project came from the Green Climate Fund, set up by the UN and coordinated in Caricom by the 5Cs. Seven more projects in other countries in the region are to be implemented through the fund. And large-scale coral restoration — still far from reality — is going to have a large price tag.
Weakened by debt and recession, countries in the Caribbean have to rely on funding from international aid agencies and wealthy countries for their adaptation projects. The money — experts believe — hasn’t been enough so far. “The Green Climate Fund that was created to assist in putting mitigation measures in place and to assist the victims of climate change is commendable,” Prime Minister Skerritt told the UN General Assembly. “But much more must be done to assist countries that continue to bear the brunt of the impact of climate change.”
Dr Riad Nurmohamed, a climate change researcher and member of parliament in Suriname, was equally unequivocal. He believes regional representatives need to strike the same tone at international meetings about the issue. “We have to be very clear on this: the Caribbean is not responsible for the climate change. So indeed the world needs to support the Caribbean more,” says Nurmohamed.
In addition to a lack of financing, many Caribbean countries are distracted by social problems, as Brown University researcher Stacy-Ann Robinson found in a paper looking at limitations Caribbean countries face in adapting to climate change. “The cost of crime is 7.5 per cent of the country’s GDP,” said a Jamaican official, one of the twenty-six policymakers Robinson spoke to for her study. “A hurricane costs two per cent of GDP every couple or few years, but the high probability–high impact events are crime and corruption. These do more harm than any other threat.”
The main limitation in the region, others say, may be overall poor governance. “Finance is not our major impediment,” said another policymaker. “If we are not properly structured internally — our institutions are too politicised or they are not working the way they ought to work — then it doesn’t matter how much money we pour or throw at the problem, the problem will not be solved.”
The 5Cs is working to improve the prospects of the Caribbean Community on all fronts, negotiating with international agencies and advising regional governments. Fuller hopes to get more people — including the average citizen — to grasp the urgency of the problem. “If we keep to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we have a sixty per cent chance to adapt,” he says of global warming. “If we go to two degrees, our ability to adapt is cut down to ten per cent. We only have a small window of opportunity to survive.”
How climate change will affect the Caribbean: a timeline
• Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress.
• Seventy to ninety per cent of coral reefs will die at 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, which is expected to happen by 2030; 99 per cent of coral reefs will die at two degrees Celsius of warming, which could happen by the end of the century.
• Major coastal defence projects will be required to protect hundreds of kilometres of vulnerable coastlines by 2050.
• By that year, significant relocation of people and existing coastal infrastructure will be necessary.
• World Bank estimates suggest the annual damage to countries within the Caribbean community caused by climate change will rise to US$11 billion by 2080 — eleven per cent of the region’s collective GDP.
• The sea level in the Caribbean is expected to rise by more than 1 metre by 2100, putting many coastal towns and cities — including most Caribbean capitals — at risk of being submerged.