Facing up to climate change

Recently there has been increased traffic in the discourse regarding Climate Change, especially since the US decided to back out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and more recently since the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season.  This year, we have recorded 15 named cyclones with storms taking a track so far south that Trinidad and Tobago (a nation outside the traditional hurricane belt) was affected.

Six of the 15 cyclones became major hurricanes, four of which tore through the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea, wreaking havoc on the Caribbean as well as the US Gulf States.  Much of the discourse regarding climate change here in the Caribbean has been focused mainly around strategies that will either enable us to adapt to or mitigate the effects of the changing climate or prevent further changing (although we are barely complicit!).

Of equal importance, yet seemingly trivialized, are the benefits and costs to be accrued from making livelihoods in the Caribbean more resilient to climate change.  It is of paramount importance that we ensure that strategies implemented are ultimately more beneficial to the environment, economy and society than they are costly to maintain some semblance of sustainability.

As with everything else, there are various costs and benefits to be borne from decisions to make Caribbean livelihoods more resilient to climate change and these costs and benefits must be absorbed and realized by the environment, the society and the economy.  Take for example the rising temperatures consequent of climate change.  In an effort to remain cool and comfortable amidst this meteorological debacle, it is very easy to turn on an air conditioning system.

Air conditioning systems use extremely high amounts of energy, which for the Caribbean is derived from fossil fuels, the main contributor of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  In addition to that, air conditioning machines are also linked to the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere.  The question then becomes, are the benefits from the use of air conditioning systems greater than the evident cost of being partially complicit to climate change?

The situation described above is not limited to the use of excessive amounts of energy to beat the heat though.  Climate change is responsible for food shortages as plants and animals are unable to cope with the proliferation of pests and diseases it encourages and to adapt to the extreme weather conditions and water shortages due to increased temperatures and the uneven spatial and temporal distribution of rainfall.

In an effort to deal with the problem of food and water shortages, numerous strategies can be explored and implemented, and while there are benefits to be realized from the implementation of these strategies, there are also costs to be accrued.  The increased production of livestock, for example, to compensate for loss to crops due to their inability to adapt to the climate can help alleviate food shortages.

Livestock farming is, however, a significant contributor to methane, a greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere (a 2011 EPA study states that nine per cent of Green House Gases in the atmosphere comes from agriculture); it is also a known fact that livestock farming emits very pungent odours and let us not forget that since not everyone is a meat eater, all costs are to be eventually borne by society.  The question then arises again; do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Similarly, dams and other means of storage are being used to harness and store water for energy and domestic purposes.  The Guajataca Dam in Puerto Rico, for example, was constructed in the early 1900s to irrigate farmlands and provide hydroelectric power and water to residents of San Sebastián, Quebradillas, and Isabela.  Projects such as these are very expensive and put a significant strain on a country’s economic resources.

Additionally, damming water chokes aquatic life downstream and robs the river of its non-extractive value.  We must also remember that most settlements in the Caribbean are concentrated along coastal areas and one ever present threat of climate change is rising sea levels.

Relocating settlements inland provides the populace with some safety; this however can potentially reduce the availability of arable land which further threatens food security and increases the food import bill, that is, assuming we have overcome the topographical challenges present in many of our islands – both costs to be borne by the society and the economy.  Alas, we are left to answer; do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Physical infrastructure is another critical area that must be well adapted if we are to be climate change resilient.  If hurricanes Irma and Maria have taught us anything, it is that we need to ensure that our buildings are able to withstand the forces of nature.  Buildings must be constructed to be well ventilated to ensure a cool and comfortable environment and to use as much natural light as possible to reduce energy consumption while being sturdy enough to be able to tolerate the strong winds that accompany the hurricanes which frequent the region as a result of climate change.

This may mean changing building codes for future buildings or even demolishing or refurbishing existing buildings to construct newer, modern and more climate change resilient ones. Then the issue of drainage arises, especially within urban areas.  Many of our Caribbean islands have experienced recent rapid urbanization and modernization which have led to the increase in impervious surfaces within city areas, a feature not at all suitable for a changing climate – a visit to Port-of-Spain after a brief convective cell more than affirms this point.

Making cities resilient to climate change involves integrated urban planning and urban renewal schemes.  These are clearly mammoth tasks when one considers the fragility of Caribbean economies so the ever important question therefore returns: do the benefits outweigh the costs? Climate change is an ever present and very real threat to the Caribbean and our size and geography aggravates our vulnerability to its effects.  It is therefore imperative the Caribbean livelihoods be made resilient to these effects across all aspects of livelihood.

Moreover, we must grapple with the fact that while there are benefits to be realized from climate change resilience strategies, there are also costs that must be absorbed and all stakeholders involved must answer the question: do the benefits outweigh the costs? Reconciliation of this question should therefore guide the decision making processes that operate to implement the necessary sustainable strategies that maximize benefits to the society.

Source: (Orel Ollivierre is a final year student of the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus pursuing studies in Geography and Environmental and Natural Resource Management) 

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