Caribbean Under Threat! – Part 2

by April 21, 2022

10 urgent takeaways for the Caribbean from the UN IPCC’s latest report on climate change.

The second instalment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, known as the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), was released in February. The scientific report presents a dire warning of the significant implications of inaction for the globe and the region; noting that even temporarily exceeding global warming of 1.5°C that is anticipated in the next two decades will result in severe effects, some of which will be irreversible.

While the report covers the global impacts, vulnerabilities, and risks of climate change, Chapter 15 was dedicated to addressing small islands in the Caribbean, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. It details that a sense of urgency is prevalent among small islands to combat climate change and adhere to the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The chapter’s Executive Summary cautions: “Small islands present the most urgent need for investment in capacity building and adaptation strategies”.

Among the team of global science experts contributing to this latest report were Professor Michelle Mycoo and Dr. Aidan Farrell from The UWI, St. Augustine and Dr. Donovan Campbell from The UWI Mona. Professor Michelle Mycoo, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning and Coordinating Lead Author of the Small Islands Chapter states “The window of opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is shrinking and many impacts may be irreversible unless urgent action is taken at the global and regional scales to stay below 1.5°C. Access to finance and implementation of adaptation measures without constraints are equally important if the Caribbean’s people, ecosystems, cities, human settlements, economies, and culture are to survive climate change impacts”.

Following the 10 urgent takeaways for the Caribbean from the first instalment of the IPCC (AR6) report in August 2021, The UWI authors have compiled part two, signaling the 10 urgent takeaways for the Caribbean from the February 2022 IPCC report.

Key Takeaway What the IPCC Report says Why the Caribbean needs to pay attention
1. Global warming continues to rise. Global warming, reaching 1.5°C in the near term, will cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans. The level of risk will depend on concurrent near-term trends in vulnerability, exposure, level of socioeconomic development, and adaptation. Near term actions that limit global warming to close to 1.5°C will substantially reduce projected losses and damages related to climate change in human systems and ecosystems, compared to higher warming levels, but cannot eliminate them all. Small islands face an existential threat if global warming rises above 1.5°C. People, ecosystems, and economies in the Caribbean will be significantly impacted in many ways. Among these include loss of lives and livelihoods, decreased food and water security, loss of infrastructure and settlements, degradation of human health and well-being, and loss of cultural resources and heritage.
2. Urgent action is needed if 1.5°C (above pre-industrial levels) is surpassed between now and 2040. Global average temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C above 1850-1900 levels in the next 20 years. Climate-resilient development prospects will be increasingly limited in the absence of rapid, deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions within a brief and rapidly closing window. This applies especially if 1.5°C global warming is exceeded in the near term. Although the Caribbean was at the forefront of negotiations to stay below 1.5°C global warming, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Urgent action is needed worldwide to reduce the possibility of global warming going beyond 1.5°C.
3. Small islands are experiencing human-induced climate change impacts and the risks will increase as warming continues. Small islands are increasingly impacted by rising temperature, tropical cyclones, storm surges, droughts, changing precipitation patterns, sea-level rise, coral bleaching, and invasive species. Projected changes in the wave climate superimposed on sea-level rise will rapidly increase flooding in small islands and tropical storms will remain the main driver of flooding in the Caribbean. Caribbean islands already face many impacts as seen annually in hurricanes, storm surges, heatwaves, droughts, and floods. Extreme events such as hurricanes are expected to become more intense. More up-to-date baseline data and access to climate information are needed to be prepared and adapt to extreme events.
4. Terrestrial ecosystems within insular biodiversity hotspots, including the Caribbean, are being threatened. Large population reductions and 100% of island endemics (species found nowhere else on earth) across insular biodiversity hotspots— including within the Caribbean region—will face extinction by 2100 for > 3°C warming. Damage to ecosystems and the services they provide, as well as biodiversity loss, are likely to decrease the provisioning of resources to the millions of people living on small islands, resulting in impacts on settlements and infrastructure, food and water security, health, economies, culture, and migration/displacement.
5. Severe coral bleaching and declines in coral abundance have been observed in many small islands. Some damage will be irreversible. Under future climate scenarios, some small islands will experience severe coral bleaching on an annual basis before 2040. Above 1.5°C, globally inclusive of small islands, it is projected there will be further loss of 70–90% of reef-building corals, with 99% of corals being lost under warming of 2°C or more above the pre-industrial period. If global warming transiently exceeds 1.5°C in the coming decades or later, (overshoot) damage will be irreversible. Coral reefs provide beach sand and are fish nurseries. Climate-sensitive economic sectors such as tourism and fisheries depend on coral reefs. Coast-focused tourism is already extremely impacted by more intense hurricanes due to coral reef damage and beach erosion. Aquaculture is being viewed as a longer-term means of diversifying incomes in the Caribbean.
6. Food and Water Security for human survival is threatened if drought and salinization of freshwater resources occur. On small islands, coastal land loss attributable to higher sea level increased extreme precipitation and wave impacts, and increased aridity have contributed to food and water insecurities that will become more acute in many places. Drought risk projections for the Caribbean indicate that a 1°C increase in temperature (from 1.7°C to 2.7°C) could result in a 60% increase in the number of people projected to experience severe water resource stress from 2043–2071. Increasing droughts in the Caribbean can affect human health and crop production. Integrated watershed management and building reservoirs to store freshwater received in the rainy season are fundamental for water security. Improved access to climate information for crop production and new technologies for growing drought-resistant crops and crops adapted to flood conditions are important for farmers.
7. People, economies, and infrastructure in cities, coastal areas and low-lying. Coastal cities and rural communities on small islands have already been impacted by sea-level rise, heavy precipitation events, tropical cyclones, and storm surges. As of 2017, an estimated 22 million people in the Caribbean live below six metres of elevation. The high concentration of population, infrastructure and economic assets in Caribbean coastal cities and low-lying settlements is a major concern given sea-level rise and projected increases in coastal flooding and storm surges. The most vulnerable people, e.g., those living in informal settlements, are disproportionately affected. Land use planning, revised building codes, engineering solutions such as coastal defenses and green infrastructure need to be more innovative.
8. Losses and Damages on small islands are exceeding national budgets. Despite the loss of human life and economic damage, the methods, and mechanisms to assess climate-induced losses and damages remain largely undeveloped for small islands. Additionally, in the absence of robust methodologies to infer attribution, assessments of losses and damages are limited for small islands. Specific studies are needed on biophysical variables and species; long-term impacts of ocean acidification on species, including relationship to disease outbreaks, and changing breeding grounds of marine species and impacts on fisheries and marine-based livelihoods; incorporating biophysical feedback and interconnectivity of environments into models; and more detailed datasets (e.g., bathymetry, coastal assets).
9. No single adaptation response is a complete solution to reducing risks to people and nature. There are feasible and effective adaptation options that can reduce risks to people and nature. The feasibility of implementing adaptation options in the near term differs across sectors and regions. The effectiveness of adaptation to reduce climate risk is documented for specific contexts, sectors, and regions and will decrease with increasing warming. Integrated, multi-sectoral solutions that address social inequities, differentiate responses based on climate risk and cut across systems, increase the feasibility and effectiveness of adaptation in multiple sectors. The Caribbean uses a mix of adaptation responses such as protection, accommodation, advance and retreat. Ecosystem-based adaptation e.g., mangrove replanting and protection measures e.g., seawalls are also used but can cause damage if poorly designed and built. Responses are more effective if combined, planned, aligned with sociocultural values and development priorities, and underpinned by inclusive community engagement processes. Feasibility studies are needed to determine how effective adaptation measures have been in responding to sea-level rise and flooding. The scale of needed action remains limited and requires more research.
10. Barriers to adaptation and enabling conditions hinder responses. Small islands present the most urgent need for investment in capacity building and adaptation strategies, but face barriers and constraints which hinder the implementation of adaptation responses. Barriers and constraints arise from governance arrangements, lack of financial resources, and human resource capacity. Institutional and legal systems are often inadequately prepared for managing adaptation strategies such as large-scale settlement relocation and other planned and/or autonomous responses to climate risks. To make progress in adaptation, the Caribbean needs enablers for e.g. better governance; political commitment; legal reforms; improving justice; equity, and gender considerations; building human resource capacity; increased finance and risk transfer mechanisms; education and awareness programmes; increased access to climate information; adequately downscaled climate data, and embedding indigenous knowledge and local knowledge adaptation responses.