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Climate change and its impact in the Caribbean: A brief review

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

The climate of the Earth is changing. Globally, climate change has been linked to mass coral bleaching, increases in coastal erosion rates and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and flooding. These effects are expected to continue for several decades despite the implementation of aggressive measures to limit anthropogenic activities that contribute to climate change. Severe coastal erosion has been observed in 70% of the beaches in Caribbean islands including Anguilla, Antigua-Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This article provides a review of the current state of climate change in the Caribbean region.

Climate and weather, although often used interchangeably, are distinct from each other, in that climate describes average meteorological conditions and variability over a much longer period and a much wider geographical space. Analysis of meteorological data over a relatively long-time frame of decades to thousands of years is necessary to determine whether there is a long-lasting change in meteorological conditions as opposed to minor short-term weather fluctuations. Climate change can be described as a persistent and distinct change in the trend of shorter-term variabilities.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) defines climate change as “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.” Research conducted by Anderegg et al. (2010) revealed that almost all (97% to 98%) prominent researchers in the climate science community agree that anthropogenic activity is responsible for most of the observed changes in the climate. Anthropogenic contribution to climate change is driven mainly by the excessive release of greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere (Betzold, 2015).

Figure 1: Changes in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (CO­2) and Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Emissions between 1750 and 2019

The Caribbean region together with the Latin America is responsible for approximately 1.8 million of the cumulative 36 million tons of CO­2 released into the atmosphere in 2016 (World Bank, 2020). Although the overall net emissions of greenhouse gases from the Caribbean is insignificant compared to developed nations (Figure 2), the negative impact of climate change is projected to be higher (Betzold, 2015).

Figure 2: Caribbean Small Island States* CO2 emission rates per capita as compared to the World from 1960 to 2014

Although reducing CO2 emission rates is an important strategy for mitigating the impact of climate change, adaptation is mandatory in the short to medium term because of the long-lasting effects of existing CO2 levels. Several features of the Caribbean region, including high average temperatures, geographical position along the equator, and general low-lying status, increase the projected negative effects of a changing climate to the vulnerability of many of the islands (Benjamin, 2010).

Moreover, the Caribbean is located in a region that is frequently affected by hurricanes. A growing body of evidence suggests that there is a direct relationship between global warming and an increase in hurricane intensity and frequency. The hurricane season in the Caribbean region typically starts in June and ends in November. Historically, the extreme winds, storm surges and intense rainfall associated with hurricanes during this time have caused a lot of damages to the region (Lin et al. 2012). Damages include the destruction of buildings, roads, utilities, and the exacerbation of coastline erosion.

Based on a findings of recent study (Virgil, 2020), most of the adaptation activities were reactionary measures occurring in the Agriculture (16.7%) and the Infrastructure and Transportation sector (16.7%) in the Caribbean. Extreme weather events such as droughts, flooding, hurricanes, coastal erosion, and sea level rise (SLR) were the driver of climate change adaptation measures in 33.3% of the articles included in this study. The goal of 38.9% of the adaptation measures in the Caribbean was to prepare, prevent or reduce risk. Adaptation measures such as the rainwater harvesting program in Jamaica achieved multiple objectives. This includes providing water for domestic consumption and supporting the agricultural sector.

There are several challenges associated with the implementation of adaptation measures. Lack of finances, skilled labour and poor governance were identified as major (Virgil, 2020). From the literature, finances have been as a critical requirement for the success of the adaptation measure. The implementation of most climate change adaptation measures required the involvement of multiple stakeholders, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), individuals, communities, and government agencies.

There has been a pressing need to initiate proper adaptation measures that could mitigate the negative effects of climate change impacting the Caribbean. Although adaptation has been occurring, more research and work is required to ensure that countries are fully prepared to meet the challenges associated with projected changes. Priority should be given to conducting research on the effects of climate change and adaptation strategies, as well as to economically important sectors, like the tourism industry. This article serves as a starting point for future research, contributing to the creation of climate change adaptation policies in the Caribbean.

Virgil, C.C.-L. and Pun, K F., “Climate change and its impact in the Caribbean: A brief review” The Caribbean Academy of Sciences Newsletter, Vol.3, №3. November, pp.2–4

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