The heat is on: global warming and the Caribbean

Will Henley reports on efforts to help the Caribbean combat global warming

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in St George`s, Grenada, damaged during Hurricane Ivan in September 2004. Photograph by Adrian GriffithShoreline degradation at Consett Bay, St John, a small fishing village on the east coast of Barbados. Photograph by Adrian Griffith

Caribbean countries are only too familiar with the ravages of climate change. Hurricanes yearly batter shores, floods wreak havoc and harvests wither. And the pace of global warming seems to quicken with every passing season.

“The potential threat is severe,” says Dr Mark Bynoe, an environmental economist whose research is funded by the Commonwealth Secretariat, pointing to a projected rise in global temperature of at least two degrees Celsius within this century.

“With a one-degree increase we could get a three- to six-foot rise in sea levels,” says Bynoe. “In a country like Guyana, where 90 per cent of the populace live on land that is as much as six feet below sea level, the impacts are unimaginable.”

Just as the effects of climate change are varied, manifested in sun-scorched crops or devastating tornadoes, so too the options for mitigating or adapting to change are wide-ranging – provided you have the technology and resources.

From his base at the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belize, Bynoe is conducting a cost-benefit analysis into the ways governments can best adapt to threats to tourism, agricultural and agro-forestry, energy, health and infrastructure sectors.

Countries such as Guyana, he explains, where most economic activities occur on the coastal plain, are protected by a complex system of man-made and natural sea defences such as jetties, dykes and mangroves. But they risk being overwhelmed by the rising waters of the Atlantic.

“The coastline will be inundated,” he says. “Unless [governments] can find resources to rehabilitate new sea defence structures, they will have to beat a hasty retreat inland.”
“So they are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
Working in collaboration with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Bynoe is doing research that follows up on the findings of the Stern Review – a groundbreaking 2006 report commissioned by the UK Government which concluded that without prompt action, climate change could cause as much damage as the wars and economic depression of the early 20th century. In his analysis, Bynoe is drawing on studies from Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana, among other countries, done by organisations such as the World Bank, University of the West Indies, and the Institute of Marine Affairs in Trinidad and Tobago.

One such study, from Belize, looks at how the country’s renowned coral reef – which is vital to the country’s fishing and tourist industries – might be rehabilitated. Threats to this reef, the second longest stretch of coral in the world, are caused by pollution and overdevelopment, sedimentation, over-fishing and rising sea temperatures. And they place much of the country’s economy at risk.

“Once the coral goes, it will affect the whole of Belize,” says Bynoe. “Whole livelihoods will be put under strain if fishermen cannot provide for their families, and cottage industries dependent upon tourism may be adversely affected.

“Part of my remit is to ascertain what is possible and what is not possible. What we have to recommend is whether to re-examine building laws – do we need more resilient structures? Do utility lines need to be above or beneath ground? If we have floods, how do we deal with them? Does it mean building more structures, more sluices, more pump stations, or does it just mean changing the way we conduct certain activities?

“Across the Caribbean region significant quantities of agricultural lands are being converted to housing development, exacerbating the flood threat associated with greater rainfall intensity. Rather than looking to build new structures, could we have better land-use planning, for example?”

Whatever the answers to these questions, Bynoe says the region can no longer afford to follow a “business as usual” approach. 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 – a staggering 11 per cent of the region’s collective GDP.

Yet, despite the evidence, overcoming what Bynoe terms the “challenge of realisation” is proving no mean feat. Though climate-change deniers are on the wane, scientists still face problems convincing government ministries of the urgency for action.

“Why are we going down this route? Let’s be quite candid. We still need to get a number of policy-makers and ministers of finance on side.”

A key date just around the corner makes Bynoe’s work all the more relevant.  With a successor to the Kyoto Protocol – the 1997 treaty which created binding greenhouse-gas reduction targets – set to be re-negotiated at the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in December, convincing decision-makers of the costs of climate change has never been more pressing.

Bynoe is all too aware of this, and plans to present his preliminary findings during the multilateral talks in Copenhagen.

“We have a single major goal,” he says. “We hope to show the policy-makers the costs of inaction.”

Courtesy the Commonwealth Heads of Government Secretariat