Planting mangroves to boost natural defenses near Grenville, Grenada. (Photo by Marcos Lopez/TNC)
When Hurricane Dorian slammed the Bahamas on Sept. 1 with 185–mph winds, it produced all-too-familiar scenes of devastation: trees stripped bare of leaves; buildings shorn of their roofs or shredded into wooden splinters; lines of people desperately awaiting food, supplies or evacuation.
The category 5 storm provided an alarming example of the Caribbean’s changing climate, experts say, and in so doing highlighted the region’s urgent need to adapt not only to hurricanes but also to drought, changing rainfall patterns and rising sea levels. They say significant progress must be made on multiple fronts including the relocation and strengthening of key infrastructure; expansion of natural and artificial sea defenses; and wide adoption of renewable energy and water conservation.
“We’re really only touching the tip of the iceberg right now in terms of responses,” says Carlos Fuller, a climate specialist at the Belize-based Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, which helps coordinate the region’s response to global warming.
Like other island regions, the Caribbean accounts for a negligible fraction of greenhouse-gas emissions but bears the brunt of global warming. Data published by the International Monetary Fund indicate Caribbean states are over twice as likely as other small states to be hit by disasters. As a ratio of GDP, the estimated cost of disasters in Caribbean states is six times higher than in large states, the IMF says. The World Bank estimates annual climate-change damage to the 15 Caribbean Community (Caricom) nations will be US$11 billion a year by 2080, or 11% of the Community’s GDP.
Funding and coordinating adaptation is a tall order in a region of hundreds of islands with limited national budgets and expertise. The Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, or Five Cs, a Belize-based Caricom institution, acts as a research hub and clearinghouse for efforts across the region. In 2009 it published a regional road map for incorporating climate-change adaptation strategies into national development agendas. But progress has varied greatly from country to country. Though the Five Cs facilitates connections between states and funders, many nations lack capacity to plan and execute projects or draft funding proposals, experts say.
Renewables a case in point
The gap between goals and reality is evident in the slow transition to renewable energy, which Caricom hopes will account for 47% of power generation by 2027. A 2016 report by the IMF indicated that despite abundant sunshine and wind, power in many Caribbean nations came almost entirely from burning imported diesel or oil. As Hurricane Dorian underscored this month, storing fossil fuels on storm-prone islands invites disaster. Dorian ripped the tops off oil-storage tanks at a terminal owned by Equinor, the Norwegian oil company, spilling thousands of barrels of oil on the ground. Three weeks after the spill at the six-million-barrel facility, the company said some 6,000 barrels of oil had been recovered at the terminal and that the facility would be free of all spilled oil in two to three weeks. How long it would take to clean oil from the ground outside the terminal was unclear.
Some islands have moved to address such vulnerabilities, says Fuller. The two-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, for example, sped its shift to renewables after Hurricanes Irma and Maria knocked out its infrastructure in 2017. Antigua’s government in September announced plans for a US$10-million renewable energy system that would fully supply Barbuda, built with funding and assistance from the United Arab Emirates–Caribbean Renewable Energy Fund, New Zealand and Caricom.
Puerto Rico, which suffered a months-long blackout after Hurricane Maria in 2017, has passed a law that commits it to 100% renewable energy by 2050. A plan for energy reform drafted by the power authority would divide the power grid into eight independent sections and add as much as 1,500 megawatts of solar generation by 2022 and up to 1,100 megawatts of battery storage. But the plan also calls for gas turbines and three new natural gas terminals—a relatively affordable and fast option, but one that runs counter to the 2050 renewables goal, says Dan Whittle, senior director of the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund. EDF, which is advising the power authority, is part of a project to create low-carbon micro-grids in Puerto Rico—small networks that generate and distribute renewable energy in communities.
Improving coastal defenses
Aside from rethinking infrastructure, Caribbean nations must protect and expand their coastal defenses, says Eddy Silva, manager of the Resilient Islands Program at The Nature Conservancy. With the International Federation of the Red Cross, the U.S.-based group is working with communities in Grenada, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic to identify ways to minimize wave and flood damage, taking advantage of natural coastal buffers.
In eastern Grenada, for example, the two organizations worked with a community to build a seawall alongside a degraded coral reef to break the force of waves that were eroding the beach and making the bay vulnerable to storm surges. They also are replanting mangrove stands.
Yet storms are just one consequence of climate change, notes Michael Taylor, a climate specialist at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. Drought struck the entire Caribbean during 2013-16, and one study attributed 17% of its severity to climate change. Island water supplies depend almost entirely on rainfall, which is ever scarcer and more extreme. Islands are using a patchwork of means to save water, including more efficient irrigation; greenhouses to regulate temperature and limit evaporation; and water harvesting, desalinization and purification. In Antigua, all new houses must have a cistern for collecting rainwater. Says Taylor: “You see progress, but not enough.”
For Silva and other experts, the challenge is shifting gears from policymaking to project development. Governments must spend money upfront to save money in the future, they say. They must also learn from disasters. “What we’ve been telling the political directorate is that you do not rebuild the same way, in the same place,” says Fuller. He cites the example of Belize City, which moved 50 miles inland after a deadly hurricane in 1931 destroyed much of the town. Adaptation is daunting but possible, he says: “You just can’t get despondent.”
- Victoria Burnett