No part of the world is feeling the impact of climate change harder than the Caribbean. This region composed of many small island states with small economies is a particularly vulnerable victim to the largest global crisis of this century. Climate change is a systemic threat that affects the Caribbean in many forms and shapes.
For one, changes in weather conditions and rising temperatures cause extreme heat and droughts. These are devastating for crops, hurting farmers as well as workers employed in the agricultural sector, an important contributor to the Caribbean economies.
Another major symptom of climate change, this one particularly devastating for low-lying Caribbean island states, are rising sea levels.
All over the world, thinking about the Caribbean immediately evokes images of long, sandy beaches with beautiful azure waters. Every year, this is what draws many of the tens of millions of tourists to the Caribbean. As beaches become submerged, it is clear that this will impact tourism, the most important economic sector in the Caribbean. In 2013, 25 million tourists contributed $49 Billion to the Caribbean’s economy, which are 14% of its GDP. For this reason, the Caribbean is considered the most tourism-dependent region in the world. One in ten jobs in the Caribbean depend on tourism in some shape or form.
Yet as bad as it already is, climate change does not stop at submerging beaches. Over the years, maritime heat waves and ocean acidification are set to destroy large parts of the Caribbean coral reefs. 80% of life in the ocean is found in coral reefs. And that while coral reefs only make up about 1% of the ocean territory. Due to their incredibly high biodiversity, coral reefs are also known as “maritime rainforests”. Coral reefs, with the many species they house, provide ample food for fish and are thus crucial in the maritime food chain.
As climate change is set to destroy coral reefs, the amount of fish in the Caribbean will decrease. This will decrease the yields in the fishing industry, an industry that sustains more than 200,000 people’s livelihoods in the Caribbean and is a major contributor to the economy. Already in 2005, as much as 80% of corals were bleached, with 40% already dead in the eastern part of the Caribbean. And it goes without saying that dead, calcified coral reefs will draw less tourists than flourishing, colorful, vibrant and alive coral reefs.
Tourism will also be hit by the increased frequency of storms and hurricanes wreaking havoc across the region. Destruction of buildings and infrastructure is a real economic and fiscal threat to Caribbean island nations: Just recently, in 2019, Hurricane Dorian caused damages of about $3.4 Billion in the Bahamas. That is 25% of GDP. And in 2017 Hurricane Maria hit Dominica, destroying 90% of its infrastructure and creating $1.3 Billion of damages, which is a whopping 226% of the island’s GDP.
“30 years ago, one expected to deal with major disasters, say, once every ten years. Nowadays, most islands expect at least one, and possibly two or three, every year”, reports Norman Girvan of the University of the West Indies.
David, Enfield, senior scientist at the University of Miami and a former physical oceanographer at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration goes a step further and warns that “the severe hurricanes might actually become worse. We may have to invent a category 6.”
Damages like these force these small island regions to take on excessive amounts of debt to finance the reconstruction. Debt already is a serious issue in the region. As damages are projected to increase in frequency and severity due to climate change, these countries will have to bury themselves in debt. All while climate change hits their already vulnerable economies on many other fronts, especially in the tourism industry, the fishing industry, and the agricultural sector.
Confronting this challenge is particularly difficult as the causes are outside the control of the Caribbean and the consequences hit the region from many angles simultaneously.
The Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change from 2015, aimed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. It popularized this aim with its slogan “1.5 to stay alive”, which received a lot of support in the Caribbean, as life in the Caribbean will be seriously threatened if temperatures rise beyond that threshold. As of now, we have already reached 1.1 of the 1.5 degrees and at the current pace, without aggressive counter-measures, are set to reach 1.5 before 2040.
For this reason, Caribbean nations will seek compensation for climate damages at the upcoming COP27 climate meeting in Egypt. Barbados is set to be among the first nations to receive climate money from the new resilience trust by the International Monetary Fund. The country is seeking to be the first 100% green and fossil-free island state in the world, by 2030. Jamaica on the other hand is rolling out pilot projects for the use of natural gas in public vehicles, such as buses.
Meanwhile, the Bahamas are hoping to earn at least $300 Million worth of revenue from the sale of blue carbon credits, which represent negative CO2 emissions, generated from carbon sinks like mangroves.
Yet as much as these regional initiatives deserve recognition, the Caribbean is highly dependent on countries worldwide to reduce global emissions and slow down the crisis. Yet climate change is already in full force and its consequences are already severely affecting the region. The region must adapt in many ways and find creative solutions to tackle the challenges posed by increased temperatures, rising sea levels, frequent storms, and hurricanes, as well as temperature and acidity changes in the ocean.