The Caribbean is, undoubtedly, a climate vulnerable region. An archipelago of mostly low lying, small island states, we are surrounded by large expanses of water, vulnerable to the tempers of the winds and rain.
It has always been this way, to an extent, geographically speaking, much of the Eastern and Northern Caribbean has always been in the pathway of storms, hurricanes and other natural disasters. What is new, however, are the intensities of these disasters, and the level of damage and threat that they pose to our isles. Small island developing states are uniquely vulnerable to climate change according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC, whose report for 2021 showed grave projections for the future, as many states have failed to actively meet and stick to the commitments laid out in 2015 by the Paris Agreement.
As such, sea levels continue to rise and increasingly dangerous climatic events continue to happen. Sea level has already risen almost half a metre since the 1800’s and continues to rise in the Caribbean at about three millimetres a year. Additionally, the warming of the atmosphere and the Earth’s oceans lead to increasingly powerful storms and hurricanes, which also threaten the Caribbean immensely. A primary concern among scientists is how changing ocean levels will affect people living at sea level especially when storm surges inundate coastal and low-lying areas. IPCC studies show that in the Caribbean, our proximity to the equator means we will suffer the impacts of sea level rise earlier and more severely than other areas around the world.
Exactly what makes the region so vulnerable, aside from our geography? Financially, we lack the resources to adapt on our own. Having been former colonies and small economies, we were already at a financial disadvantage as we were not able to industrialize and reap the benefits of industrialization as early and as quickly as the metropolitan states, whose industrialization processes arguably started the shift in the climate in the first place. Now, as emerging economies, it might be difficult to find the funding needed to completely transition and shift our infrastructure and energy consumption patterns to greener alternatives at the speeds we might need to, without considerable help.
One particularly vulnerable sector in our region is agriculture. Farmers are generally more attuned to variations in weather and climate than the rest of us, as they depend on the elements to earn their living. They’re already telling climate researchers that soils are drier and crop yields are lower due to increased air temperature. One local study notes that southern Trinidad, which was already drier than northern Trinidad, became 10% drier between 1900 and 2010. Despite the general trend of decreased rainfall in some areas, there’s another pattern that’s just as damaging. Extremely heavy, short showers have been more frequent, they dump large quantities of water so quickly that water courses can’t handle the volume, and fields and communities are flooded. Combined, these climate change challenges could diminish our access to safe, reliable supplies of local produce. It all adds up to a risk for a small nation’s food security that we can’t ignore. Meanwhile climate change through sea level rise and stronger storm surges is already taking a toll on our beaches. Erosion has been recorded on the east and south coasts of both Trinidad and Tobago and in some cases, the change is significant. Additionally, fish landing sites have been ranked as most vulnerable to damage from rising seas and storm surges.
Another resource that’s vulnerable to climate change is the biodiversity found in our forests and coral reefs. Forests can be thinned by stronger storms with impacts on animal habitats. Even our water supply can be affected when rainfall runs off too quickly rather than flowing into catchments or aquifers. In the warmer, more acidic sea, coral cover is also being lost with inevitable consequences for fisheries and tourism.
We must prepare to adapt to the effects of climate change given the impacts currently being felt, and those that are projected to happen. As signatories to a global effort to combat climate change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Trinidad and Tobago also focuses on adaptation by assessing its vulnerability to climate risks. In T&T, we will have to find ways of managing these risks and coping with the fallout, that means mainstreaming climate resilience into national development plans, so that impacts and risks in all sectors are minimised and can be managed. This also includes building structures to keep the sea at bay and that are designed to withstand impacts over a very long period. Investment in Infrastructure should be seen as 100-year investments. This means introducing new building codes to increase resiliency to the adverse impacts of climate change.
Adapting also means managing forests more attentively with a national system of protected areas and a baseline of how much they contribute to livelihoods. Adaptation in the agricultural sector also includes helping farmers access fresh water sources and plant drought resistant crops. It also means changing our water use habits, learning to be more thoughtful of where our water comes from and understanding the importance of using it carefully. Together we can manage the challenges of a warming planet by carefully planning how each vulnerable sector can adapt.
Aside from bracing for impact, there is much we can do to mitigate and even reverse what is predicted to happen. We need to take climate change seriously with regards to actual policy, and transition our economy towards greener energy production, so as to lessen our emissions. As signatories to the Paris Agreement, we must meet our obligation under that treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and take concrete steps in the right direction. We must also continue to keep our eyes fixed on emerging climate risks as we plan to secure the health and prosperity of the next generations.