Climate Change and Inequality in the Caribbean
Painting by Gabriella Nero

Sun, sand, shimmering waters. It’s the paradise you most likely think of when you hear the word “Caribbean”. Now picture the beach framed by a solemn grey sky and “closed” signs hanging on every shopfront. This is the aftermath of a hurricane, a sight that’s becoming ever more common as climate change intensifies.  

In the Caribbean, climate change isn’t a theoretical issue; it’s a daily struggle. Everyone is directly impacted by it and it is an unavoidable reality.  By contrast, in the UK, most of us are yet to see serious negative consequences of climate change. It is merely a word in the newspaper or on a charity leaflet and as a result, we are able to push the problem aside for future generations to tackle.  And yet, the cruel irony is that western nations contribute most to fossil fuel usage and global warming. 

But could the obvious inequality of climate change affect different regions’ abilities to tackle the issue in the coming decades? Countries in Caribbean are on the front lines of the climate crisis, but they are also helping pioneer new ways to tackle the causes and consequences of global warming. 

Responding  to extreme weather conditions

The frequent hurricanes in Dominica have shown how climate change can increase the likelihood of natural disasters. These experiences have made people living the Caribbean islands generally more mentally and infrastructurally resilient to the threat of extreme weather and more aware of the consequences of rising ocean temperatures. This resilience is shown in the way how Dominica responded to the threat of Hurricane Maria:

In August 2017, a category 5 hurricane tore through the Caribbean. This hurricane was nothing like the country had experienced before, bringing intense rainfall, storm surges and extremely high winds. An estimated 80% percent of the Dominican population were directly affected and 90% of roofs were damaged or completely destroyed. Despite the destructive force of Hurricane Maria, the resilience of the Dominican people helped push them through and this determination led Dominica to set the goal of becoming the first climate-resilient nation by 2030. 

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Aftermath of a Hurricane in the Caribbean
Photo By Gabriella Nero

Economic Adaption and Innovation

The resilience and willingness to adapt displayed by many Caribbean countries is evident in the growth of environmentally friendly industries. Notably, eco-tourism is flourishing in the region. For example the ‘Three Rivers Eco Lodge and Sustainable Living Centre’ in Dominica, which protects and enhances the surrounding environment, whilst attracting wealthy tourists and bringing income to the local area. This project relies on solar energy – the water supply is pumped from the river using a solar-powered pump, limiting  pollution of the groundwater supply. In addition, the hotel limits the amount of waste produced by consistently monitoring water, electricity and gas usage and solid waste production 

Another example is the Sea Turtle Project’ in Barbados which combines  environmental education and tourism. Assisted by the University of the West Indies, project leaders are working to recover marine turtle populations through conservation methods and monitoring programmes. This programme  offers training workshops with a wealth of conservation and research. Climate change reduces the biodiversity of marine wildlife and habitats, a consequence Caribbean nations are attempting to address. Whilst Western nations all too often focus on adapting existing infrastructure and industries, in the Caribbean sustainable principles and technologies are being integrated into innovative new projects. 

The past and difficulties the Caribbean islands have faced have gone some way to prepare their inhabitants Caribbean islands’ for the future – as weather conditions become increasingly extreme and they will hopefully continue to evolve in an efficient way. On the other hand, in developed countries such as the UK, methods of industrialization have become normalized after hundreds of years and the people and infrastructure are completely unprepared for natural disasters, and it is, therefore, harder to adapt to climate change.

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Hurricane Resistant Buildings in the Caribbean
Photo by Gabriella Nero

Readiness to change

Costa Rica is a prime example of an environmentally progressive country that has followed the UN sustainable development goals, showing  commitment to being environmentally friendly, despite the challenges these Caribbean islands have faced as a result of climate change and the wealth and power disadvantages experienced by nations in the Global South. It even received the UN’s 2019 Champions of the Earth award in recognition of its ambitious policies.

Costa Rica’s economic growth has remained steady over the last 25 years and this has led to the Green Trademark. The PES (Payment for Ecosystem Services) programme in Costa Rica is an innovative financing scheme which aims to protect ecosystems and reduce deforestation in Costa Rica – a key problem that has catalysed climate change. This programme allows landowners to receive investments from the government in exchange for the protection of ecosystems and adoption of environmentally-friendly practices. For example, farmers are paid to conserve biodiversity and ensure carbon dioxide levels do not increase. 

Costa Rica’s success at following the UN sustainable development goals demonstrates the resilience of many Caribbean countries and the  long-term measures they have put in place. Though these countries are not the primary culprits for climate change and have less economic resources and global influence to enact change, many are leading the way in addressing how we think about and tackle the Climate Crisis.  

As the Caribbean’s early experiences of global warming have proven, both the causes and consequences of the climate crisis are greatly influenced by wealth and power imbalances. It is only when we acknowledge this fact that we can make real environmental progress. In the meantime, many nations in the Caribbean are simultaneously shouldering the burden of more extreme weather patterns and the measures needed to prevent further environmental collapse.

Read more from the Americas section here.