CHRISTMAS 2013 was not a happy one for some parts of the Eastern Caribbean. The region was hit by extraordinarily heavy rains which caused massive floods and landslides.
As a result, there was catastrophe everywhere. Eight people died in St Vincent and the Grenadines, dozens of families there were forced out of their homes, water and electricity were cut off in many places, and some people are still missing.
In St Lucia, five people were killed by landslides and the rains caused extensive destruction in Dominica. So, does all this mean that the region is facing increasing peril from long-term climate change and that Christmas 2013 in St Vincent is the future for the entire Caribbean, including Jamaica?
There is some dispute as to whether man-made climate change is real. And some of the countries which are the biggest producers of carbon emissions are some of the slowest when it comes to implementing meaningful measures against climate change. But there seems little doubt that climate is changing and that small island states are at particular risk.
There are a number of indicators of changing climate. The world is seeing more frequent and severe hurricanes and tropical storms. Outside the hurricane season there are more intense rains, such as the eastern Caribbean has just endured. Along with the rains there is coastal flooding as well as storm surges, and there is a long-term rise in sea levels. One estimate is that sea levels in the Caribbean will rise between five mm and ten mm a year.
In the case of Jamaica that country is at risk from climate change and rising seas. The majority of Jamaica’s hotel rooms are in coastal areas like Montego Bay, Negril and Ochos Rios. Altogether, 85 per cent of hotel rooms are found in these areas, 90 per cent of production is there and 25 per cent of the population lives there.
Climate change and rising sea levels are a long-term threat to resort areas, yachting, cruise ship infrastructure and coral reefs. Altogether, climate change threatens billions of dollars of economic activity in the region.
So, if climate change is such a serious threat, what can the region do? In terms of limiting the carbon emissions that reputedly create climate change, the Caribbean is very much in the hands of the big polluters like America and China. But the big industrial powers are reluctant to do much about climate change. And, in a recession, public opinion in America is much more concerned about growth and jobs than controlling carbon emissions.
However, Jamaica can consider what it can do to protect low-lying land and the tourist areas. This would include building methods. The problem is that planning for a changing climate requires thinking long-term and billions of dollars. But both of these are in short supply in the region at the present time, when the countries are struggling with their immediate economic problems.
International institutions, including the European Union, have expressed a concern about the effects of climate change on the Caribbean. But that concern is usually manifested in commissioning reports, rather than the substantial investments that are required. But if America, Britain and the international institutions are serious about the perils of climate change this must be matched by investment.
The Caribbean produces only a fraction of the carbon emissions that produce climate change, but it is one of the main sufferers. So there is a responsibility on the part of big industrial countries to help regions like the Caribbean, which are most at risk
In the meantime, the unseasonal rain storms that devastated St Vincent this Christmas are not the last we are going to see of the hurricanes, flooding and storm surges associated with climate change.
—Courtesy Jamaica Observer