Commentary: The Caribbean: Facing a fatal fate

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Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own.

By Sir Ronald Sanders

High-tide flooding is set to become an every-other-day affair in coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast of the United States of America by the year 2100. It will also fatally harm the countries of the Caribbean.

As the level of the sea continues to rise, conditions will be calamitous long before that 82-year period is reached. The resulting flooding will not be storm related; it will occur simply because the level of the sea has risen above the level of land. When storms also strike, conditions will be even worse.

This 82-year projection is based on the assumption that greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming and sea level rise, will be curbed. But, there is no evidence of that happening. Indeed, even in the much-vaunted Paris and Bonn accords on climate change, there is no legally binding agreement on nations to cut back their emissions. In the case of the United States, the present administration has backpedaled on commitments made by the previous government and it may yet withdraw the US entirely from the understandings reached so far.

The problems caused by high-tide flooding will adversely impact the states on the East Coast of the United States, ranging from New York through Florida and across to Texas. But the islands of the Caribbean and mainland countries with already low-lying coasts, such as Guyana and Belize, will be affected first.

This latest cause for alarm, concerning high-tide flooding, is identified in a new report from the US National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA). According to the report, high-tide flooding in the mid-Atlantic doubled from an average of three days a year in 2000 to six in 2015.

The report points out that high-tide flooding, which is today an occasional event, will occur every other day by 2100, inundating homes and businesses, including hotels. That is 182 days a year.

Of course, if there is no curbing of greenhouse gas emissions, high-tide flooding will become a happening every day, forcing businesses, homes and agricultural activity further inland.

The migration of such activities away from the coast will be possible in mainland countries at great expense, disruption, loss of property and the creation of refugees, but such inland migration will hardly be possible for the islands of the Caribbean, particularly the small ones.

In the scenario painted by the lead author of the NOAA report, William Sweet, by the time countries wise-up to the increased incidents of flooding and the damaging consequences, the impact will be “chronic”. Sweet emphasizes that the change will not be gradual; it will occur “in leaps and bounds”.

Therefore, NOOA forecasts that by 2050 (just 32 years away), even if there was an immediate halt to global greenhouse emissions, high tide flooding will occur between 50 and 250 days per year along the US East Coast. When this begins to happen, Caribbean islands would already have been ruined.

In the US, there is a divided approach to this issue. While authoritative organizations, such as NOOA, are drawing on scientific study and evidence to inform decisions-makers and planners about the escalating and devastating flood risk, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued instructions to its staff to downplay the contribution of human activity to climate change. Even the words “climate change” have disappeared from official communications.

At the level of the government of individual states of the US, however, an alliance of 14 of them have vowed to cut emissions and are on track to drop such emissions from 24 to 29 percent, based on policies already on their books. The alliance states include: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

The 14 governments recognize that their coastal states are highly vulnerable to sea level rise. That’s why they are motivated to act.

However, these states represent only 36 percent of the US population. Many more states have to make and implement commitments, similar to the alliance of 14, to reduce gas emissions to a meaningful level.

Caribbean countries have to note that the top three greenhouse gas emitters — China, the US and the European Union — contribute more than half of total global emissions, while the bottom 100 countries only account for 3.5 percent.

For the Caribbean to come anywhere near avoiding the dire conditions that the NOAA report describes, China, the US and the EU countries must significantly reduce their emissions.

As a comparison, the greenhouse gas emissions, excluding land-use change and forestry, in 2014 were as follows: China, 11,911.71; the US, 6,371.10; European Union, 4,053.66, Antigua and Barbuda, 1.13; The Bahamas, 2.71; Barbados 3.36. The biggest greenhouse gas emitter from the Caribbean was Dominican Republic at 33.11 – a mere drop in the ocean compared with the three largest emitters.

For the Caribbean, no single issue threatens the survival of each of their countries more than global warming and sea level rise. Contending against greenhouse gas emissions should be front and centre of their foreign policy and in their international relations advocacy and bargaining with China, the US and the EU.

The evidence is mounting that the region faces a fatal fate if this crucial matter is neglected or deferred.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. What you never see in any of the “chicken little” “global warming” forecasts is what the coastal cities and islands are preparing to do with regards to moving away from the coast and or abandoning these locations altogether. If it is indeed inevitable, why are preparations not being taken immediately? While it is my belief, and that of many scientists, that the warming of the climate is a natural occurrence and will not be altered one iota by man, if it is nonetheless happening the time is now to revamp the population schematic. I love all these pundits who complain about what’s happening but offer no solutions. If you really want to be a hero for the ages come up with a master plan on how to deal with the “inevitable”. Thousand of years from now they will be once again dealing with an ice age and will have to make adjustments once more. It’s called evolution and perhaps we should take heed.

    • As I say below, there is not much that can be done locally if the worst comes to pass. The problem, if real, would simply be too big and too expensive for local governments to afford, on the one hand, and foreign goverments, also faced with the same issues, to support, on the other.

      The cheapest and most reliable strategy, by far, would be mass migration to other lands, as the last ice age teaches us. If the ship is sinking, man the lifeboats and row like hell!

  2. The “fatal fate” predicted by this fatalist is not as fatal as he suggests, at least if human prehistory teaches us anything.

    The last Ice Age which ended about 12,000 years ago saw most of Europe and other northern regions covered with a thick layer of ice, forcing our nomadic hunting and gathering ancestors to adapt by migrating south in search of food and shelter, sometimes even back to Africa where the human species evolved, while other less resilient plant and animal species simply died out.

    Today, we are far more creative and adaptable than our pre-literate ancestors and are highly accustomed to moving from one region to another when times get tough.

    The only viable solution to the threat of mass flooding in the Caribbean from both a cost and benefit perspective would be mass migration to higher ground in other countries in Americas.

    The only fly in the ointment, of course, is whether they will let us in.

    With a population representing only four percent of the Western Hemisphere, much of which is underpopulated, I am optimist that mass migration to continental North and South America would occur if the worst case scenario proves correct.

    Conversely, the prohibitive economic costs of flood mitigation and internal migration to higher ground, together with the total destruction of liveihood sources such as tourism, would result in the massive extermination of much of the population of the lower lying islands, something I do not believe that the rich Western world would permit.

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