Extreme weather events threaten the future of the Caribbean. In response to a series of catastrophic hurricanes, Caribbean leaders at the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly again brought to the world’s attention the growing existential threat posed by climate change. Appeals to the international community followed the devastation left behind by hurricanes Irma and Maria. These weather events, unprecedented in scale, intensity and timing should remove any lingering doubt that weather patterns are changing due to human-induced climate change. Extreme weather events and the resulting economic and humanitarian disasters make the development model relied upon by Caribbean countries unviable in the face of climate change-related risks.
Such extreme weather events challenge the ability of Caribbean islands to implement development programmes given the increased frequency and catastrophic results of these ‘unnatural’ phenomena. While assessments of the impact of recent storms are still on-going, the effects of hurricanes Irma on Barbuda and Maria on Dominica can be placed in an historical context. In 2015 Tropical Storm Erika hit Dominica claiming 30 lives and inflicting damage estimated at over USD480 million, or 90 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Hurricane Ivan tore through Grenada over a decade ago as a category 3 system, claiming 39 lives and leaving behind damage valued at over 200 percent of GDP. These two storms, while destructive, were far weaker than those recently observed. Hurricane Irma descended on Barbuda as a category 5 system packing winds of over 220 miles per hour. Her heavy winds ripped through the island rendering what was a verdant landscape a vast wasteland. Days later, hurricane Maria tore through Dominica destroying most of the island’s vegetation and infrastructure. While no official count has been released, it is likely that up to 70 residents may have perished.
This year marked the first since records have been kept that the Atlantic Ocean has hosted two category 5 storms at the same time. Since 1851, only 33 storms have reached category 5 strength; in a period of 10 days, two such storms ravaged the Caribbean. This is to say nothing of the threats posed by hurricanes Harvey and Jose. For the Caribbean, the threat of intense weather events is likely to become the new normal. A recent study by the Commonwealth Marine Economies Programme projected an increase in the frequency of high intensity category 4 and 5 storms over the next century. These findings are directly related to increased anthropogenic (human-induced) greenhouse gas emissions and the warming effect of those emissions on the earth’s surface temperature.
In his presentation to the General Assembly days after Maria, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica explained the science behind these catastrophic storms. Warmer air and sea temperatures have permanently altered the climate between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Prime Minister Skerrit, further observed that these warmer temperatures supercharge ordinary storms with devastating effect. This argument is supported by the available science. Warmer ambient temperatures breed more frequent and severe weather events. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2016 registered the highest global average surface temperature recorded since record keeping began over 135 years ago. While El Nino is a contributing factor, many scientists point to another factor: human-induced climate change.
Should this new normal persist, the current model of development that relies on significant public sector investment and foreign direct investment will not succeed. In wealthier countries such as the United States, Federal disaster relief funds are quickly channelled to affected areas, leading to a boom in post ‘event’ construction. For independent Caribbean microstates, such largesse is not available. In the case of Dominica, after picking up the pieces following Tropical Storm Erika two years ago, local authorities are now faced with the prospect of starting from scratch; again at the mercy of international donors and financial institutions. This vicious cycle of disaster followed by public sector borrowing makes long-term development planning near impossible. This is to say nothing of the devastating effects that such storms have on the private sector.
The international community must now take concrete action to address what is quickly becoming an existential threat to the Caribbean. In putting this claim to the General Assembly, Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda argued that all 14 members of the Caribbean Community together contribute less than 0.1 percent of global emissions but disproportionately bear the consequences of the irresponsible choices of others. He challenged the international community to do more for small states that face challenges that threaten their very viability, if not survival.
To address the catastrophic damage already caused, and strengthen economic, infrastructural and social resilience, Small Island Developing States should pursue joint efforts through relevant multilateral fora such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). These efforts should be directed at securing an
international settlement that would meaningfully address the systemic risks that climate change poses to small states. Such interventions would be timely in the context of the upcoming World Bank/IMF autumn meetings: the WTO Ministerial Conference, and UNFCCC COP23. Small States should collectively seek the following: (1) ensure that targets set under the Paris Climate Change Accord are met; (2) the Caribbean Catastrophic Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) must be strengthened and scaled-up; (3) additional concessionary finance should be made available through the International Financial Institutions to strengthen resilience and assist small states adapt to weather related threats, and (4) small states at the WTO should leverage their numbers to secure duty free, quota free access to developed country markets. A paradigm shift in global governance is now needed if small island and coastal states are to survive the new normal.
— By Stephen Fevrier