Climate Change Comes to the Caribbean

climate-change-caribbean-latin-america-tourism-fishing-bananas

Climate change threatens the livelihoods of millions of people across the Caribbean who rely on fishing, agriculture, and tourism to survive. (Photo: World Bank Photo Collection / Flickr)

The future of our planet looks pretty bleak. The latest report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a dire picture: climate change is here to stay, and we’re not doing enough to prepare ourselves.

Extreme weather events from hurricanes to floods and droughts will leave virtually no corner of our planet untouched. Climate chaos will undoubtedly inflict damage upon wealthier nations, but no one is more vulnerable than the world’s poor.

The Latin American and Caribbean region is home to dozens of low- and middle-income countries that are still struggling to develop. Many depend on the warm waters and mild weather of the Caribbean to sustain their crucial agriculture and tourism industries. Climate change threatens the livelihoods of millions of people across the region who rely on these sectors to survive.

The small island nations of the Caribbean depend on the ocean as a source of food and income. Catching and eating fish have been traditions in the region for centuries, and fish remain a dietary staple. However, this heavy reliance on the ocean for sustenance may be upended by climate change. According to a recent report, the world’s oceans will see a 170-percent rise in acidity by the end of the century, which could prove devastating for global fish stocks that are already overexploited.

In the small country of Antigua and Barbuda, a severely impacted fish population would have dire consequences. Located in the western Caribbean, Antigua and Barbuda is the largest per capita consumer of fish in the entire world. Not only do Antiguans consume a lot of fish, their country’s location also makes it a prime exporter of fish products to profitable markets in Puerto Rico and the continental United States. The Antiguan export of fish commodities is currently valued at $1.5 million. For fishermen trying to make a living and the rural poor who rely on this industry for food, the future of fishing resources looks grim.

In other countries, the lucrative banana industry is under assault. The bananas grown on the tiny island of Dominica bring in a yearly profit of $68 million, a valuable source of foreign exchange for the small country. The banana industry is also the second largest employer on the island, accounting for 6,000 jobs for a population of just over 70,000. In 2007, Hurricane Dean ripped through the island, decimating the vital industry. On Christmas Eve, 2013, a day meant for shopping and preparing for the upcoming major holiday, Dominicans awoke to heavy rains that caused massive flooding and landslides throughout the island. The changing climate promises even more destructive storms, putting the banana trade—and with it much of the Dominican economy—in mortal peril.

The region depends not only on the exports it sends out, but on the people it brings in. With sandy beaches, sapphire blue waters, exotic plants, and colorful marine life, many countries in the region rely on booming tourism sectors. Jamaica’s tourism industry, for example, earns the country approximately $2 billion annually, bringing in nearly 50 percent of its foreign exchange earnings and providing a quarter of all jobs on the island. Now, though, rising sea levels are expected to inundate the coastal areas popular with beachgoers. A World Bank Study found that a 1-meter rise in sea level could potentially destroy 60 percent of the coastal wetlands in the Caribbean and the developing world. More intense hurricanes, rainfall, and landslides are all threatening the island’s tourism sector as well.

Though tourists can cause extensive environmental damage, one country manages to boast a thriving, environmentally friendly tourism sector that has still proven lucrative. Costa Rica’s sustainable tourism industry, which has won countless awards, brought in nearly $2.2 billion in 2012 alone.

In 2013, world traveler Larry Kraft took his family to the Monteverde area in north-central Costa Rica. With an elevation of 4,500 feet, Monteverde is popular for its cloud forests, zip-lining, hiking, and wildlife. Tour operators constantly tout their sustainable practices and explain how the revenue raised is spent on conservation of the environment. Unfortunately, this ecofriendly tourist destination has already begun to see the negative impacts of climate change.

Members of the Monteverde community told Kraft of worrisome weather pattern changes during the rainy season. The rain was once so predictable that residents could set their clocks to the heavy daily rains. But in recent years, there have been seasons where there simply hasn’t been enough rain. This has led to water shortages within the community and insufficient water for farms located downstream. Because 76 percent of Costa Rica’s electricity comes from hydroelectric plants in the Monteverde watershed, the lack of heavy rains has also caused power outages in the region.

Droughts especially spell disaster for poor countries with weak agricultural sectors. In Haiti, a drought in the northeast region is wiping out crops and livestock, leading to the loss of two harvest seasons. According to an official from the government’s National Food Security Coordination Unit, the drought is causing an “extreme emergency” across the region. Still reeling from its 2010 earthquake and badly underdeveloped after decades of U.S. intervention, internal instability, and predatory international “development” policies, Haiti’s food security was already precarious at best.

The drought, which has persisted for eight months and counting, has left farmers without water for crops, drinking, or cooking. Hungry children populate schools that have food supplies, but no water to prepare food with. Other schools simply have no food or water at all. The population in northern Haiti needs immediate relief, but experts predict it will take six months for the region to recover.

Mexico is facing similar problems. In 2012 the northern region of Mexico saw record droughts. Though the region is usually arid and has seen droughts before, climate experts worry about the duration and the frequency of the recent shortages. The 2012 drought that plagued the region and extended into the southwestern United States was not just a dry spell, but an obvious sign of northern Mexico’s changing climate.

The largest state in Mexico, Chihuahua, has taken a major blow to its livestock and agricultural output. Between July 2011 and July 2012, 350,000 cattle starved to death. And while the state normally produces 100,000 metric tons of corn a year, in 2011 it produced a mere 500. Corn farmers lost a staggering $65 million. The loss of crops and livestock leads to hunger and cripples the ability of farmers to support themselves or participate in their economy, hindering development.

Climate change has already battered the economies of the Latin American and Caribbean region—there is no denying or changing that fact. Looking towards the future, the best regional experts and development professionals can do is focus on mitigation and reducing risk. If the world does not start treating climate change like the serious risk—and the inevitability—that it is, the consequences for the region will be catastrophic.

Nathalie Baptiste is a Haitian-American contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus who lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She holds a BA and MA in International Studies and writes about Latin America and the Caribbean. You can follow her on Twitter at @nhbaptiste
  • Serious Joe

    The world’s average temperature has not changed a bit for seventeen years, nine months… now that the latest RSS data is in… 17 years 6 months of no temperature rise, by two other independent measures (that are slower to report the data, than RSS). How is it that “Climate Change” affects the Caribbean, when the global temperature has held steady for almost two decades? (longer, in some areas… cooler, in some areas… really, it is only warmer in parts of the arctic). You can have your own opinion, but you may not have your own facts. See RSS (Remote Sensing Systems) at http://www.remss.com – 213 months, since August of 1996, the temperature averages to a flat line. That’s actually more than half of the total time the satellites have been measuring temperature.

  • Serious Joe

    “Extreme weather events from hurricanes to floods and droughts will leave virtually no corner of our planet untouched.” – Oh, I’ve heard that one before. “The sky is falling” – look, Chicken Little, did you know that hurricanes, especially Atlantic hurricanes affecting the Caribbean, are way below normal? See http://www.weatherstreet.com/hurricane/2010/hurricane-climatology.gif

    Mankind’s “Climate Change” – supposedly through the emissions of carbon dioxide – is considered to have kicked in, staring in 1950. Prior to that, there just wasn’t enough carbon dioxide from man to have made a gnat’s mass of difference. Note that the USA hurricanes were the worst, prior to 1950 (1941-1950)
    http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/Landsea/gw_hurricanes/fig33.jpg

    Hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons (by count) have been on the decline since 1996, when the count last broke 60. Tropical storms, by count, have been on the decline since 1998. See http://policlimate.com/tropical/frequency_12months.png

    Hurricanes, cyclones, etc and tropical storms (by ferocity) peaked in 1993, with a smaller peak in 1998, and an even smaller peak in 2006. See http://policlimate.com/tropical/global_running_ace.png

    The criteria for what is a “named storm” has been lowered, in the past few years. Thus, one would expect the count of “named storms” to be higher, even for the exact same weather.

    Tornados are also way below normal; I don’t think the tornado data I have is applicable to the Caribbean (aren’t they called waterspouts there?) Three things bias the tornado information:

    (1) Doppler radar wasn’t around before. With radar, we detect more tornados, now.
    (2) People report tornados; fewer people back then, we missed some. More people now, we report more tornados.
    These two things would make the tornado count trend upward, even if the real number of tornados was absolutely flat, so the fact that the count of tornados is down, in spite of the detection bias, makes your claim of ‘extreme weather’ even more silly, but wait,
    (3) the rating of the ferocity of a tornado is based upon the damage, and the width of the swath of destruction it leaves on the ground. Two identical tornados, one through a grassy pasture, and the other through a town, well, the one through the town would receive a higher rating, even though the two were identical. More people, more towns, one would expect more damage, higher ratings, if tornados were constant. Truth is, even the ferocity ratings are down. Ah, but lately, the “width” factor was changed from the average width, to the maximum width, thus tornadoes in the recent year or so will be rated higher than they would have been, prior to the “rule change”… even so, the numbers, and ratings, are lower.

  • Serious Joe

    Global precipitation data shows no flood or drought trends. USA Stream-flow data shows no abnormalities…
    http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/images/indicator_figures/precipitation-figure2.gif
    The trend is actually upwards slightly…
    so your claim, “Extreme weather events from hurricanes to floods and droughts will leave virtually no corner of our planet untouched.”
    looks silly in the “floods and droughts” department, too.

    The USA has lots of instruments to measure stuff. Not that the USA is representing the whole globe, but hey, that is where we have the data… The instruments that measure stream flow show no abnormalities:
    http://waterwatch.usgs.gov/new/regplots/real/real_us_2.gif

    Americans seem to focus on the nasty drought in California (most of the effects of that drought are political, as the government dumps water from reservoirs into the bay to ‘save the smelt’ instead of water the crops, but that isn’t my point) where claims are made as to how unprecedented the drought is. Well, it is dry. However, it isn’t unprecedented. There’s a lake in California, one that isn’t a man-made reservoir. Well below the water line, even today’s drought-reduced water level, there are trees (stumps, really). These trees have been tested and found to be hundreds of years old (all together)… so, a few hundred years ago, the drought was so much worse (naturally, not anything to do with mankind)… that trees were able to grow (in this spot that, today, is a lake) for some 200 years. So the drought was worse then, and lasted some 200 years. Y’all just don’t understand that California is, naturally, a dry place; and our collective memories of it were accumulated during an unusually wet period.

    • serious joe

      I don’t have data on Caribbean drought, so let’s discuss California. It is applicable in that the cries of “it is worse than ever” for most any problem are rife, and I suppose that the Caribbean is no different. Most people’s sense of history starts at age six or eight. It is worthwhile to look back a little further…
      The present drought in California is not unprecedented. Modern experiences of the climate in California, spanning only the last several hundred years, appear to have been during an unusually wet period. A drought that was drier, and lasted longer, spanning the period of AD 1085-1153, is indicated by tree studies conducted in the Sierra Nevada area around Lake Tahoe. Evidence such as this is usually “attributed to extended periods of very dry conditions during the mid and late Holocene, with the most recent mega-droughts happening during Medieval times…” This drought appears to have started about 900 years ago, and apparently lasted 220 years or more. Pine trees don’t root underwater, nor do they survive with their roots submerged for long. Tree remains, apparently still rooted to the soil, were found in Fallen Leaf Lake, more than 100 feet below the present day lake level. Radiocarbon dating and dendrochronological studies provide the dating. This suggests that, some 900 years ago, that soil was dry enough for pine trees to root and grow, reaching a circumference greater than 4m and a height of over 30m. One branch was found to have about 200 rings; One trunk cross-section, 220 rings.

      http://woods.geography.unr.edu/Posters/FallenLeafLakePoster.pdf

      John R. Christy, 1 August 2012:

      “Mega-droughts of the past 1000+ years
      There are several types of records from the flora and fauna of the past 1000 years that provide evidence that droughts of extreme duration (decades) occurred in our nation, primarily in the Great Plains westward to the Pacific Coast.”

      “Rocky Mountains

      A 500-year history of moisture in the upper Colorado River basin indicates the past century was quite moist while major, multi-decadal droughts occurred in all four prior centuries (Piechota et al. 2004.) Indeed, the conclusion of Piechota et al. states that after examining the paleo-record, the present-day droughts “could be worse.” These, and other evidences, point to the real probability that water supply in the West will see declines, simply as a matter of the natural variability of climate.”

      http://www.epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Files.View&FileStore_id=66585975-a507-4d81-b750-def3ec74913d

      “Tree-ring data from the [Upper Colorado River Basin] indicate that even more severe droughts have occurred in the past, and that the current drought is the seventh worst, in an approximately 500-year proxy record. The largest drought in the tree ring data occurred at the end of the sixteenth century and lasted for at least 20 years {Stahle et al.,2000}” …

      “The two most severe, sustained droughts in the continental United States during the 20th century occurred in the 1930s and 1950s.”

      “The Dust Bowl … was the nations most severe, sustained, and widespread drought of the past 300 years, according to tree-ring reconstructions of the Palmer drought severity index (PDSI) across the continental United States [Cook et al., 1999]” ngdc.noaa.gov/paleo/pdsiyear.html

      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1029/00EO00076/asset/eost12768.pdf?v=1&t=hve1ww97&s=a0f332c1eefa85b60b6e2799faca9936d87c1bfa

      “Droughts during the 1750s, 1820s, and 1850s–1860s estimated from tree rings were similar to the 1950s drought in terms of magnitude, persistence, and spatial coverage, but these earlier episodes do not appear to have surpassed the severity or extent of the Dust Bowl drought. However, longer tree-ring reconstructions of PDSI for the United States and precipitation for northwestern Mexico and western Canada indicate that the “mega-drought” of the 16th century far exceeded any drought of the 20th century (Figure 1) [also see Wood-house and Overpeck, 1998], and is considered to be the most severe prolonged drought over much of North America for at least the last 500 years [Meko et al., 1995].” (The mega-drought of the 16th century is the worst, going as far back as AD1200).

      Stahle, D. W., et al. 2000. Tree-ring data document 16th century megadrought over North America. EOS Transactions. Am. Geophy. Union 81(12):121,125.
      The stream-flow data, from both the Cisco and Green monitoring stations on the Colorado River, spanning from 1500 to 2000, show a significant rise above the long-term mean, since about 1910. Visual interpretation of the graphical display shows that there is a decline, starting from a peak at about 1970, declining to what was typical stream flow for the 1780s to the 1880s. (Eos, Vol. 85, No. 32, 10 August 2004, Piechota, Timilsena, Tootle, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and Hugo Hidalgo, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla)

      “For the purposes of this study, a drought is defined as two or more consecutive years of below-average stream flow. For the time period 1923–2004, eleven droughts have occurred at both the Cisco and Green [stream flow] stations [on the Colorado River] … The magnitudes of the drought were calculated by evaluating the cumulative negative departure from the long-term mean over the drought period.”

      http://www.publiclandsranching.org/htmlres/PDF/EOS_southwestern_drought.pdf

      Submerged, apparently rooted trees found in Lake Tahoe, Fallen Leaf Lake, and other Sierra Nevada lakes indicate the possibility of large-magnitude, rapidly-occurring but long lasting changes in lake level. These changes have usually been attributed to extended periods of very dry conditions during the mid and late Holocene, with the most recent mega-droughts happening during Medieval times. Given the relevance of this hypothesis for sustainable water management in the Lake Tahoe Basin and surrounding areas, it is then necessary to answer the question “Are submerged trees indicators of past mega-droughts, or were they transported into the lakes by past slope movements caused by geomorphic or seismic events?” Tree-ring samples collected from the submerged trees, and crossdated against existing and newly developed long chronologies, can provide a clear map of the historic periods when trees now underwater were alive. In 2005, three wood samples were retrieved from submerged trees in Fallen Leaf Lake. For dendrochronological dating, we developed a western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) reference chronology that spans the period from AD 543 to 2003. One underwater sample, i.e. a branch cross section cut from a standing tree, was crossdated with the master chronology for the period AD 1085-1153. This initial result shows that, while it is feasible to date underwater trees, many more wood samples are needed to distinguish between climatic vs. non-climatic origin (and significance) of submerged trees in the Sierra Nevada.

      “…Susan Lindström (1990) reported the location and radiocarbon dates of trees that appear rooted at the bottom of Lake Tahoe and a few other Sierra Nevada lakes…”

      ““…some of these submerged trees, according to already conducted radiocarbon analysis, date back to the mid-Holocene (Lindström 1990).”

      … Additional evidence for mega-droughts in the Sierra Nevada was uncovered by Stine (1994), including stumps from Walker River…”

      Fallen Leaf Lake … has a surface area of 5.2 km2, is relatively deep and narrow (it fills a glacial valley), and drains into Lake Tahoe. Its watershed covers an area of approximately 42 km2. Submerged trees … studied are at a depth of about 36 m below the lake surface.

      “…in Fallen Leaf Lake, where a total of 13 submerged trees have been located. Some of these trees are over 30 m tall with a circumference > 4 m (Kleppe 2005).”

      One of the submerged pine tree-branch cross sections “contains a sequence of about 200 rings.”

      The ratio of watershed to lake surface area for Fallen Leaf Lake is (42:5) or over 8 times, which in part causes the water level of to rise (fall) quickly during wet (dry) periods. This is in contrast to Lake Tahoe, which has a watershed to lake surface area of only 1.6:1 or slightly over 11⁄2 times.

      “Of the three underwater samples, only one could be crossdated with the master chronology. This was the branch cross-section … which matched the period AD 1085-1134 both visually and numerically…”

      A reference set of tree rings was constructed from Western Juniper trees (Juniperus occidentalis) in the area.

      Samples were collected from live and dead [Juniper] trees, at three sites around Fallen Leaf Lake … The three sites were at similar elevation (2300-2600 m), with low tree density, and rocky soils… “The master [reference] chronology was formed by a total of 22 series from 16 different [Juniper] trees, and spanned the period AD 543-2003, or 1461 years, with sample depth ≥ 3 series from AD 654.”

      “…The longest continuous segment in the [reference] chronology is from a log that covers 868 years, from AD 543 to AD 1410. The longest core from a living [reference] tree included 682 years, from AD 1322 to 2003. Out of 8646 rings used to build the chronology, only 3 are locally missing, indicating a high level of complacency in the growth patterns …”

      http://woods.geography.unr.edu/Posters/FallenLeafLakePoster.pdf

  • Serious Joe

    “…the lucrative banana industry is under assault. The bananas grown on the tiny island of Dominica …The changing climate promises even more destructive storms, putting the banana trade—and with it much of the Dominican economy—in mortal peril.”
    Dominica has serious banana production inefficiencies. The island nation’s cost of production is the highest, regardless of farm size. Dominica’s 12.6 cents per pound compares poorly with all other Caribbean producers, like Suriname (8 cents per pound) and Belize (9.5 cents per pound).
    http://webiica.iica.ac.cr/comuniica/n_14/english/art.asp?art=5

    Regardless, Dominica’s production rates, since Hurricane Dean ripped through in 2007, reached record export levels and profitability records in 2013: “The Dominican Republic banana industry notched record exports of US$250 million this year thanks to phytosanitary programs to contain the effects of Black Sigatoka disease.”
    http://www.dominicantoday.com/dr/economy/2013/12/31/50094/Dominican-production-of-banana-hits-export-record

    As I have shown in other comments posted here, hurricanes, tropical storms, tornados – all manner of extreme weather – are on the decline. In other comments posted here, I show facts that global precipitation and USA stream flow volume show no hints, nothing in the slightest, to support your claim that the Caribbean is already adversely affected by “Climate Change”. I do not attempt to predict the future, but your claims of dire effects impacting the Caribbean already, are completely unfounded, and unproven. You cite no facts, yet I cite facts to show that there is no adverse impact to the Caribbean from your supposed “Climate Change”. You cite Dominica’s banana production in “mortal peril” yet I cite facts that Dominica’s banana production has never ever been better, in spite of Dominica’s inefficient and expensive production costs. IF your supposed “Climate Change” disaster is here already, and is here to stay, where are your facts, regarding banana production impact on Dominica?