When people want to escape the stress of their own lives, they visit small island states throughout the world for a chance to breathe. They bask in a foreign sense of peace and leave their worries behind. Yet the very existence of some of these islands is threatened by the rising sea levels associated with climate change. That doesn’t sound like a very relaxing prospect, does it?
It has long been recognized that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from small islands are negligible in relation to global emissions, while the rest of the world continues to greedily devour oil and natural gas by-products. According to the United Nations, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are defined as islands and low-lying coastal countries sharing similar challenges to sustainable development. Due to their size and location, Caribbean SIDS are particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change.
Furthermore, the islands’ economies depend heavily on imports, but offer a narrow range of exports. While the Caribbean islands supply the world with agricultural products such as banana and sugar, they import a large percentage of their staples such as food and fuel. Ultimately, the fate of SIDS rests in the hands of wealthier nations, which is why the global transition to green energy is imperative. (IPCC)
Climate change and climate events
Globally, most scientific reports on climate look at changes that have occurred since the pre-industrial era, or since record-keeping began. But even looking back at the past decade, it’s clear that our world today is very different from the world of 2010. Analyzing data on GHG concentrations, temperature rises, sea level rises and extreme weather events reveals some disturbing trends. Here are just a few high (or low) lights
1. The years from 2014 to 2018, were the hottest ever recorded on the planet.
These peak temperatures, recorded by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, followed decades of warming around the globe. Higher temperatures are linked to a range of dangerous natural disasters ― including extreme floods, hurricanes and deadly wildfires ― and deaths
2. Six Category 5 hurricanes have torn through the Atlantic in the past four years.
Hurricane Dorian landed in the northern Bahamas in early 2019, flooding 70% of Grand Bahama. Combined, Hurricane Lorenzo (2019), Hurricane Michael (2018), Hurricanes Irma and Maria (2017), and Hurricane Matthew (2016) have caused approximately 3700 deaths.
As cutting edge research continues to develop, it can now attribute individual hurricanes to global warming. For example, new research estimates that as the Earth has warmed, the probability of a storm with precipitation levels like Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 hurricane, was higher in Texas in 2017 than it was at the end of the twentieth century. Harvey brought a record amount of rainfall in parts of Texas, killing more than 80 people and caused an estimated $130 billion in damage..
3. The Arctic sea ice cover decreased by 13% this decade.
There has been an ‘unprecedented’ melting of ice sheets and shrinking glaciers this decade according to the UN report in 2019. Scientists have warned that rising sea-level due to the melting will make coastal cities and towns more vulnerable to climate-related hazards such as tropical cycles, flooding, marine heatwaves, permafrost thaw, and sea ice loss.
And these catastrophes won’t only affect the coasts. Decimated coastlines will force a global influx of climate refugees, strain local resources, and exacerbate existing infrastructure issues throughout nations.
First responders are already inundated with emergencies. Conditions will become even more perilous for emergency personnel, who are making rescues throughout fast-flooding areas
No matter where you live, the rising sea level will affect you.
4. Floods with a 0.1% chance of happening in any given year (also known as 1000-year floods) have become a frequent occurrence.
These floods are not ordinary ones but a deluge of water from very heavy rainfall, based on the century of flood data that researchers have compiled. These once-in-every-one thousand floods are occurring more frequently.
Hurricane Harvey was one of these 1000-year events. It’s hard for people to grasp this 1000-year phenomenon, but in 2016, five of this kind of flooding hit the US, making experts wonder whether the global rise in temperatures has made these current-prediction models obsolete.
5. More than 100 “billion-dollar” disasters have happened, twice more than the previous decade.
The US has experienced more than 100 disaster events with a loss of more than a billion dollars each. This figure is twice as much as the cost in the past decade. Following Hurricane Harvey’s $130 billion in damages, the next is Hurricane Maria at $93 billion, Hurricane Sandy at $73 billion, and Hurricane Irma at $52 billion.
6. We ended the decade on track to warm a catastrophic 3.2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century
The Human Cost in the Islands
Despite the many differences among Caribbean nations, climate change poses a serious threat to them all. According to the IPCC, average temperatures in the region have increased by 0.1° to 0.2°C per decade over the past three decades. Rainfall patterns have shifted in the region, with the number of consecutive dry days expected to increase. Additionally, sea level rise has occurred at a rate of about two to four cm per decade over the past 33 years, a trend which presents risks to the region’s freshwater resources and to its largely coastal population dependent on tourism and agriculture. (IADB)
There is also a growing concern in island communities in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific and Indian Oceans that freshwater scarcity and more intense droughts and storms could lead to a deterioration in standards of sanitation and hygiene (Cashman et al., 2010; McMichael and Lindgren, 2011). In such circumstances, increased exposure to a range of health risks including communicable (transmissible) diseases would be a distinct possibility. (IPCC)
In terms of addressing the threat of climate change to the Caribbean, the cost of inaction is high. Projections indicate that losses could total US$22 billion annually by 2050. That figure represents roughly 10% of the current Caribbean economy. Additionally, climate change resources could help the region reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and exposure to their price variability, with gains for climate change mitigation. (IADB)
Efforts to reduce the impact of hurricanes
Hurricanes are by far the most frequent hazardous phenomena in the Caribbean. Historically, the Caribbean islands have borne the brunt of the destruction caused by hurricanes. In the Greater Caribbean Basin from 1960 through 1988 (excluding the United States and U.S. territories) hurricanes caused more than 20,000 deaths, affected 6 million people, and destroyed property worth over US$9.5 billion (oas).
Hurricanes aren’t a new phenomenon in the region. Residents have always known that mid-August to mid-September is considered peak hurricane season in the Atlantic. But the increased frequency in devastation and occurrence have so greatly disrupted daily life that many countries and regions require more resources for support. Risk management practices have the potential to greatly help SIDS in preparing for climate change impacts, especially in the form of increased extreme events. Organisations and companies are also taking actions to decrease risk from natural disasters on SIDS. For example, the Caribbean Hazard Mitigation Capacity Building Programme of CARICOM is helping Caribbean countries create national hazard vulnerability reduction policies such as…; and the United Insurance Company of Barbados gives financial incentives for homeowners to put preventative measures in place. The Catastrophic Risk Insurance Facility (CRIF) within the World Bank is piloting a scheme for small States to buy parametric insurance coverage against natural disaster risk. (UNFCCC)
Micro-insurance, catastrophe bonds and reduced insurance premiums as an incentive to take preventative measures have all been suggested as plausible risk transfer methods, but a small risk pool and lack of financial mechanisms act as an obstacle to insurance initiatives. (UNFCCC)
Additionally, the devastating impacts of climate change will majorly hinder the sustainable development goals of the SIDS,
Climate change threatens to worsen existing development challenges like a loss of market and declining value of traditional exports; declining domestic food production and increasing imports; difficulties associated with attracting foreign direct investment; increasing cost of petroleum relative to the value of traditional exports; reduction in official development assistance, increasing populations and unemployment and environmental degradation. (UNFCCC)
Transition to Green Energy
While SIDS contribute only to a very small percentage of global emissions, they are taking steps to scale up renewable energy and fulfill their international climate pledge. Many of the world’s SIDS have started to integrate renewables into their electricity supply mix. The expected benefits include reducing dependency on costly, sometimes volatile fossil-fuel imports. But local utilities must also ensure reliable supply amid the shift to variable sources, such as solar and wind energy. (IRENA)
According to IRENA, “moving from predominantly thermal, fossil-based power generation to a system rich in wind and solar energy is not without challenges for SIDS. The variable nature of those sources — the sun must shine and the wind must blow — requires careful integration with existing power systems. The transition must be approached in a structured manner, with studies undertaken at key stages.”
While the islands are continuously working to improve their standing when it comes to transitioning to renewable energy and meeting their sustainability goals, they can’t do it alone.
In the fight against climate change, the islands are the little guy who gets knocked out with one blow. To stand a fighting chance, they need help from the big guns; they need the resources to build resilience towards increasingly devastating natural disasters. They need resources to invest in new development models and solutions that can address their specific vulnerabilities, to turn their weaknesses into strengths, and cart the course to a new era of sustainable development (OECD). They need the international community to step up.