LONDON (AlertNet) - Many Caribbean states are likely to fall into perpetual recession as a result of climate shocks to their key tourism and agricultural industries unless they move quickly to shore up their defences, regional experts warned this week.
Worsening droughts and tropical storms, coastal erosion and flooding linked to sea-level rise and rising temperatures are already putting new pressures on the Caribbean’s economies, driving away tourists and cutting crop production, said Kenrick Leslie, executive director of the Belize-based Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre.
With 70 percent of the region’s population and an equal share of its infrastructure along threatened coastlines, Caribbean nations could be spending close to a fifth of their GDP just to cope with climate impacts by 2080, said Murray Simpson, a University of Oxford researcher who has worked with the U.N. Development Programme in Barbados.
Higher seas could put major coastal airports, ports and power plants underwater, experts said at a University of London conference on responding to climate change in the Caribbean. And rising temperatures alone look set to seriously damage the region’s key reefs and reduce production of major crops like rice, beans and maize by at least 10 percent by mid-century.
That could make life dramatically harder in a debt-burdened region where 38 percent of people already live in poverty, the experts said.
If the Caribbean fails to adequately prepare, it faces “perpetual recession under these conditions”, Leslie warned, calling adaptation to the ongoing changes “an imperative”.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
Most countries in the region are feeling the pressure already. Farmers in Jamaica are seeing an unusual combination of increasingly severe droughts and hurricanes, leading to a gradual depletion of their financial resources.
Drought - more than storms - is now the biggest worry for many farmers, said David Barker, who tracks climate change effects on Jamaican agriculture at the University of the West Indies.
Interestingly, the changing weather patterns have produced climate change winners and losers, with farmers in low-lying wetland areas – who can continue producing through droughts – benefiting from higher crop prices in dry periods. But they have also seen crop losses from unexpected torrential rains that flood their fields, Barker said.
Overall, the changes are “crippling agriculture” in places like Jamaica, he said. And proposed measures to protect farmers, including small-scale crop insurance, have not been well received, in part because most farmers distrust government programmes.
The range of climate impacts across Jamaica indicates that “even in a small island, (climate) impacts will vary a lot from place to place”, suggesting that far more detailed studies and modelling of upcoming conditions are needed, Barker said.
Looking ahead can be a challenge, however. Carol McSweeney, who has done climate modelling in the Caribbean for Britain’s Met Office Hadley Centre, said most models for the region disagree about whether there will be more rain in the future.
But regardless of rainfall, rising temperatures are set to cut production of most of the region’s major food crops, she said. Fishing is also likely to be affected as higher ocean temperatures bleach coral reefs.
Shifting temperature and rainfall patterns also are likely to drive increases in tropical diseases like dengue and malaria, and worsen problems with heat stress and water-related diseases like cholera, said David Dodman of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.
Dodman, who has worked extensively in Jamaica, said sea-level rise and worsening storm surges pose a particular threat to low-lying countries. In the Bahamas, 88 percent of people live in low-elevation coastal zones, and other low-lying nations such as Suriname, Guyana and Belize face similar problems.
Managing climate risks will require not just interventions like sea-wall building but restructuring the region’s capacity to adapt to changing conditions.
“We need to think about resilience as not anticipating particular hazards but taking a broader and more integrated approach to responding to a range of stresses we cannot really predict,” Dodman said.
New carbon taxes and levies on air travel, for instance, could have dramatic influences on the flow of tourists to the islands, he said.
“Regulations around trade and carbon are going to create very large shifts in our economies,” he predicted.