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Climate Change, COVID-19 & Caribbean Resilience

Author: Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster

The CARICOM & OECS Caribbean (C&OC) is a group of distinct and diverse states bound together by a colonial history that resulted from their ‘discovery’ in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. The following events imbued a spirit of resilience into the region’s people. However, climate change’s pervasive impacts present challenges that threaten to undermine every aspect of Caribbean life. Both at the regional—including national—and the international levels, states have realized that climate mitigation alone cannot be their salvation from the onslaught of climate change. As a region, they need to exploit avenues that make them more resilient to climate change. However, in many respects, the three key priority areas identified for C&OC states to achieve climate resilience require their vision and determination and the international community's support.

Growing up as a Guyanese and Caribbean national, I became accustomed to hearing that we are a resilient people as a region. And indeed, we are, as a product of both history and geography, both of which continue to play central roles in the region’s vulnerability to climate change and associated impacts such as biodiversity loss and sea-level rise. With its stunning scenery and vibrant cultures, the Caribbean is one of the world’s top tourist destinations. In addition, sustainable use of ocean resources, known as the “blue economy,” offers potential for economic diversification, while preserving the region’s environment and further developing other sectors with potential for growth (World Bank, 2021).

The Caribbean is a group of islands bounded by mainland South, Central, and North America, which entered history in 1492 with their ‘discovery’ by Christopher Columbus. This mishap catalyzed a chain of events starting with the wide-scale annihilation of the Caribbean’s indigenous peoples, which has determined the geopolitics, social composition, economic, and, subsequently, many environmental issues that challenge the region today. For example, as a direct consequence of colonization by a plethora of European colonists, the primary forest cover of one of the thirty-six biodiversity hotspots (in regions of high biodiversity which display [hyper]endemism with at least 1,500 vascular plants as endemics) has decreased by at least 70% (Myers, 1988, 1990, 2003). The cultivation of King sugar was part of this loss (Adamson, 1972) (Beckles, 1997; 2012).


This early example of ‘ecocide’ was accompanied by the systems of slavery and indentureship that somehow shaped the region positively and negatively.                        
The waves of independence which rippled through the region nearly four hundred and seventy-four years after Columbus’ unceremonious arrival, eventually gave birth to two geopolitically distinct economic unions of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). However, these unions faced the dilemma that their mainly agrarian bases were primarily exhausted, and consequently, they became primarily dependent principally on the sun, sand & sea product of tourism. In 2021, the Caribbean is the most tourism-dependent region globally, with travel & tourism accounting for a large share of the overall economy (WTTC, 2021). Unsurprisingly this firm reliance on international tourism has meant that the Caribbean region suffered disproportionately more than other regions during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a whopping decline of fifty-eight percent of GDP between 2019 and 2020 (WTTC, 2021). Therefore, the tourism sector is both the Achilles heel and the main organ to drive the socio-economic recovery of the region post-COVID-19 for Caribbean states.

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The Morgan Lewis Sugar Mill, one of the two remaining functional mills (the other is Betty’s Hope in Antigua & Barbuda) from the Caribbean’s plantation era. This is an early example of energy resilience / Photo by Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster

A prominent feature that unites and separates the CARICOM & OECS Caribbean (C&OC) is the marine environment’s primary presence and subsequent importance in the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, in many respects, the region’s island states are constellations in a marine universe, as their exclusive economic zones far exceed their terrestrial areas. For instance, Barbados and Antigua & Barbuda have EEZ: land ratios of 388:1 and 250:1, respectively (Heileman, 2004) in the top fifteen large ocean states (Chan, 2018; UNEP-WCMC, 2028). So important is the marine environment that the semi-enclosed sea that most of the states share—the Caribbean Sea—has been ascribed a “special status” under the 2001 Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, which guides the CARICOM union. The marine environment is axiomatic to both land and cruise tourism and critical sectors such as fisheries and shipping. However, the climate crisis and its associated impacts threaten the very foundation of life in the Caribbean, perhaps only rivaled by the COVID-19 pandemic.


In addition to the historical factors which shape the C&OC’s propensity to be vulnerable are several geographic and inherent environmental factors. First, the Caribbean is in ‘hurricane alley,’ a zone characterized by the visitation of annual Cape Verde-type hurricanes. An old ditty depicts the possibility of yearly visitations by these storms:
 

 

 

 

 

 


 
The region has seen its share of devastating hurricanes, with the frequency and strength of the storms intensifying. For example, the years 2017 and 2019 saw the C&OC states Antigua & Barbuda, the Commonwealth of Dominica, and The Bahamas experience storms of intensity that exceeded the current Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale—so-called Category 5+ storms—which exceeded the maximum strength of 150 km/h envisioned under the system. Then, in September of 2019, a hurricane hit Irma and Maria's region in three weeks. In addition, in 2019, Hurricane Dorian swept through in September, flattening Barbuda, Dominica, and several Bahamian cays, converting Caribbean people into climate-change refugees and migrants.
 
But hurricanes are not the only natural occurrences that states have to contend with; the region also boasts the distinction of containing the Caribbean Plate, which borders the North American Plate, the South American Plate, the Nazca Plate, and the Cocos Plate. These activities along these borders generate intense seismic activity, including frequent earthquakes, occasional tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions (Fernández-Arce & Alvarado-Delgado, 2005). At least one instance of a ‘live’ submarine volcano (seamount) in the Eastern Caribbean –Kick-‘em-Jenny—which has since 1939 caused numerous earthquakes, high waves, and tsunamis. The volcano is currently too deep beneath the surface for tsunami activity. Still, it last erupted in 2017 (Allen et al., 2018) and can threaten yachts, fishing boats, and coastal communities as far east as Barbados. On the terrestrial side, volcanic and geothermal activity abounds in the form of nineteen active volcanoes (UWI Seismic, 2021), like the La Soufrière volcano on St. Vincent and the Grenadines remain active enough to cause widespread damage and destruction. On April 9, 2021, La Soufrière erupted, followed by 32 other eruptions, displacing roughly 30,000 people who were primarily farmers, as the land closest to the volcano is used mainly for agricultural production (CARICOM Today, 2021). The effects of La Soufrière’s eruption added stress on top of the COVID-19 pandemic for several of St. Vincent & the Grenadines’ neighbors. Barbados, for example, was covered with ash for weeks, impacting the restart of the island’s tourism season after a one-month ‘pause’ in February 2021. The passage of Hurricane Elsa further exacerbated this on July 2—the first since 1959—which left many island areas without electricity for days, destroyed approximately one thousand homes and displaced many Barbadians. As Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously quipped, “[w]hen sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”

June, too soon,

July stand-by,

August come it must,

September remember,

October all over.

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On July 2, 2021, Barbados experienced impacts from the first hurricane since Hurricane Janet in 1955. Hurricane Elsa felled trees, destroyed houses, left many homeless, damaged and destroyed property, and left the island without power for days. / Photo by Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster

The historical and geographic factors combined have imbued C&OC states with characteristics that challenge their ability to achieve sustainable development goals. These challenges include limited resources, susceptibility to natural disasters, vulnerability to external shocks, excessive dependence on trade, and fragile environments (Thomas et al., 2020). In 1992, the U.N. recognized states who faced these similar characteristics in Africa, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and South China Sea (AIMS), the Caribbean, and the Pacific as small island development states (SIDS). Climate change presents another piece of the dilemma faced by C&OC states, as SIDS are some of the world’s regions most vulnerable to climate change. SIDS recognized that they are on the “frontlines of climate change” (de Águeda Corneloup, 2014) as “hot spots of climate change” (Thomas, Schleussner, & Kumar, 2018) and will be the “canaries in the coalmine” (Walshe & Stancioff, 2018) if they do not achieve the Holy Grail of 1.5°C. This situation is particularly true because, even though SIDS are currently negligible contributors to anthropogenic climate change, they are among the most vulnerable to its impacts. One example of collective action which has yielded significant past and continuing effort has been the coming together of SIDS under the umbrella of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). AOSIS has become a strong negotiating group in the UNFCCC, becoming one driving forces behind  the inclusion of the now elusive 1.5°C goal as part of the global temperature goal in the 2015 Paris Agreement, supporting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to produce a special report on the implications of 1.5°C of global warming and most recently the announcement by the Honorable Prime Minister of Antigua & Barbuda, Gaston Browne (which is current Chair of AOSIS) and the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, the Honorable Kausea Natano of the signing of an historic Agreement for the establishment of a Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law. The stated objective of the Commission is to create a body for the development and implementation of fair and just global environmental norms and practices.

Given the vastness of their marine environment, climate change also makes SIDS especially vulnerable to the aquatic effects of climate change, including sea-level rise, ocean acidification, loss of coastal and marine ecosystems, fisheries and biodiversity, coastal erosion, and marine life heatwaves, and an increase in hurricanes. On the transition zone between sea and land, and the terrestrial side, states in the Caribbean also see saltwater incursion and impacts on their agriculture, such as drought and land degradation. Additionally, eighty percent of the populace in the C&OC live on or within the coast’s proximity (State of the Cartagena Convention Area Report, 2020), with most of the rural public reliant on agriculture, fisheries, or tourism. Estimates predict that Caribbean SIDS will have average annual losses of 5% by 2025, escalating to 20% by 2100 in projections without regional mitigation strategies (UN-OHRLLS, 2015). Therefore, as Caribbean SIDS, we are directly threatened and at the highest risk to the effects of climate change, as their livelihoods, food security, and health change. The SID highlighted the predicament they faced at the recently concluded CoP 26. The Honorable Mia Amor Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, pointed out how the temperature rise associated with climate change "… will be a death sentence for the people of [SIDS] ..."

Climate change, therefore, has come to mean that the concept of resilience inherent in the Caribbean DNA is now more than ever axiomatic to the viability and survivability of C&OC states. Strategies based on climate mitigation are not adequate. Three priority areas emerge for the C&OC. First, resilience in climate finance. Second, the resilience of marine ecosystems and biodiversity. Third, resilience in indigenous energy, including marine renewables. Finance is a critical factor for C&OC SIDS, as paradigm shifts such as the blue economy and the just energy transition require financing and technical assistance. The blue economy will allow the development of their boundless marine environment, and the just energy transition will address carboniferous emissions and reduce the region’s heavy reliance on imported fuels.

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The Barbados Light & Power Solar Generation Plant, Nesfield, Trents, St. Lucy, Barbados. Solar energy is a major source of domestic energy for heating water in Barbados. Recent legislation has seen expansion and diversification by the government, homeowners, the private sector, and the national power company. / Photo by Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster

At COP 26, Prime Minister Mottley lamented that climate finance to small frontline island developing states declined by 25 percent in 2019. Prime Minister Mottley stated that this “[f]ailure to provide enough critical funding to small island nations is measured in lives and livelihoods in our communities … [making this shortfall] … immoral, and it is unjust.” The impact will drastically affect those who rely on the tourism industry and small-scale fishers, either directly or indirectly. Climate change, which has illustrated links to biodiversity loss (IPBES Report, 2019) and overfishing (IUCN, 2017), decimates the C&OC’s fishing industry. In this context, we know that wetlands, seagrasses, and coral reefs are necessary for conserving biological diversity. As a result, it represents an important frontier for using blue carbon ecosystems to combat climate change and provide co-benefits (IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, 2019).


Furthermore, the threats to the majority of the C&OC’s populace, including those most vulnerable—children, the youth, women, and indigenous peoples—have opened the region’s appetite for climate, debt, and reparatory justice. A feature of the Commission announced by Prime Ministers Browne and Natano is that it will trailblaze a revolutionary legal path to address the loss and damage faced by climate change. To this end, the Commission is authorized to request Advisory Opinions from the International Tribunal to the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) on the legal responsibility of states for carbon emissions, marine pollution, and rising sea levels. There are also increasingly more mechanisms that allow citizens of C&OC stated to influence change at the national, regional, and international levels. 

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The Author is an international environmental & energy lawyer whose research champions the blue economy and the just energy transition, especially in respect of marine renewables / Photo by Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster

Finally, an area crucial for the C&OC’s resilience—which is key to achieving their determined national contributions—is the just transition. Except for the established oil province of Trinidad & Tobago and the emerging petrostates of Guyana and Suriname, C&OC states are heavily reliant on the importation of fossil fuels. In 2019, 7% of the region's GDP imported fossil fuels (Moloney, 2021). This reliance on the importation of fossil fuels impacts their foreign exchange reserves, economies, and ability to trade and expenditure to develop their social and environmental policies. There has been an increasing desire and effort by states to harness the power of indigenous renewables, including the geothermal energy contained in the volcanic islands and marine renewables such as offshore wind, wave, tidal, and ocean thermal (OTEC). Apart from the advantages of climate change and financial resilience, the reliance on indigenous energies also strengthens against supply chain issues made acute by the COVID-19 pandemic and natural occurrences such as the 2021 La Soufrière eruption. During natural disasters, such as hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, the importance of the energy sector to our economies and societies and its ability to be resilient becomes paramount. C&OC states realize that diversifying their energy mix is as essential to their viability as the struggle to tame the beast of anthropogenic climate change. Crucially, climate resilience circles back to a discussion of finance, technical assistance, and the vexing issue of loss and damage.

In conclusion, circumstances have forged a spirit of resilience into the ethos of the Caribbean region. However, climate change presents a challenge that the area cannot face singularly or collectively but requires global action. However, as evidenced by the outcome of COP 26, global action is a thorny path that does not favor SIDS and developing countries. As a result, resilience, not mitigation, is the path to the salvation of C&OC SIDS. However, while resilience is not an option, C&OC SIDS find themselves in a situation which in many respects, brings them full circle to that fateful day in 1492 when Columbus ‘discovered’ them.

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“Aurora” - the darkest hour, is closest to dawn on the west coast of Barbados, after a passing storm / Photo by Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster 

How to cite this page:

Lancaster, A.M.S.N. (2021). Climate Change, COVID-19 & Caribbean Resilience. [online] Shackletontrust.org. Available at: https://www.shackletontrust.org/caribbean-resilience. https://doi.org/10.54823/fh151t1e

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