As Caribbean countries impacted by major hurricanes continue to pick up the pieces, their unaffected neighbours have been warned to brace for more intense storms in coming years.
The warning came from St Lucia’s former Minister of Sustainable Development, Dr James Fletcher, in his lecture to the St Lucian Students’ Association at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies this week.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria left a trail of destruction in their wake in the northern Caribbean and Dominica last month. In the case of the latter, Hurricane Maria virtually wiped out the vital agriculture sector and caused extensive damage to infrastructure and essential services.
Speaking on the topic: Climate Change, The Caribbean and the Paris Agreement: Inextricably Linked, Dr Fletcher told the audience that such disasters would now be the region’s new reality.
“We will now have to deal with the fact that it’s Russian roulette. Maybe next year it will be us, maybe the year after it will be us, but it is inevitable. We will be visited, every single one of us, by a major hurricane sometime in the future; we have to prepare for that.
“And I think what has happened to Dominica, what has happened to Barbuda, is giving us an opportunity, unfortunately, even as our brothers and sisters are brought to their knees and are really almost destitute in these countries, but to see what we can do so that when – not if – a hurricane strikes us, we are in a position to get up a little faster, or maybe to minimise our loss of lives and loss of livelihoods,” he said.
While acknowledging that climate change will not cause more hurricanes, he explained that changing weather patterns will result in more intense cyclones.
“In the past, maybe every two or three years, you will get one category five [hurricane]; what you’ll have now are two or three category fives every year, or a category three or a category four, and that’s scary,” he said.
He recalled the catastrophic Hurricane Ivan in Grenada in 2004, and Gilbert in Jamaica in 1988, which destroyed 203 per cent of Grenada’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 365 per cent of Jamaica’s GDP, saying Dominica’s situation could be even grimmer.
“I’m sure when the loss and damage reports are done for Dominica you will find that this last hurricane, , Maria, probably is of a magnitude somewhere between Gilbert and Ivan. Because the persons who were in Grenada for Hurricane Ivan tell you that what they’ve seen in Dominica for Maria pales in comparison; that Dominica is just completely devastated by this hurricane. . . and remember Dominica is just recovering from Tropical Storm Erika two years ago.
“And that’s the problem with us. We’re constantly in a cycle of repair and recovery. We never really get out of completely recovering from one hurricane when we’re visited by another, and that is unfortunately the situation that most of our Caribbean islands will have to deal with for the foreseeable future,” he said.
The region’s experience this year, with the unprecedented number of catastrophic hurricanes could be regarded as justification for their persistent lobbying for a 1.5 degree Celsius cap on greenhouse gas increases at the 2015 Climate Change conference in Paris, in the face of resistance from some developed countries.
“The norm before that was two degrees Celsius, and all of the small island developing states were saying two degrees is way too high for us. It showed you the intensity of some of the countries against a 1.5 degrees Celsius line because for them it means, particularly the oil producing countries, it means a drastic change in the way they do business.
“Their whole economy is structured on producing oil and selling oil. But if you want to keep global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, it means that there must be a very quick transition away from fossil fuels [and] that will cause disruptions in their economy, and that’s why they were so against [it],” he stated.
The former government minister cautioned that the region should expect increased flooding and more frequent droughts due to changing weather patterns. However, he noted that there were some steps countries could adopt to build their resilience, including implementing effective land use systems; reducing deforestation, adopting climate smart agriculture, and make public buildings more climate-resilient.
He also called for Caribbean countries to lobby international organisations such as the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to review their development financing rules so that affected countries can access much-needed funding after natural disasters.
“That’s important because the OECD has said that if you have a high GDP per capita you are not eligible for development finance support, which is ridiculous because if you look at … what Hurricane Ivan did to Grenada . . . you can go from a really nice GDP per capita one day, to looking really impoverished and destitute the next day.