According to the journal Nature, in an article entitled “The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability” by Mora et al, Jamaica will experience a departure from the climatic norm as early as 2023. What does this really mean?
Simply put, the projections suggest that average temperatures in Jamaica will be hotter than the hottest average temperature in our recorded history (historical extremes). This brings us back to the ongoing raging debate on climate change. Is it real, what does it mean for us as a nation, what does it mean for the man in the street? These questions and more continue to be asked.
According to the Environmental Vulnerability Index, Jamaica is ranked one of the 35 “extremely environmentally vulnerable” countries in the world, with a score of 381, the same as Trinidad and Tobago. Guyana is the only CARICOM country ranked among the top 13 countries considered to be “resilient.”
All these present a rather dim view; however, the challenge is not insurmountable.
The expectation for more intense storms and higher temperatures signals a future where the extreme may become the norm. Does this mean we are doomed? Absolutely not! Despite the projections, there is much we can do as a society to increase our resilience to the expected future changes in climate.
A progressive increase in average temperature, along with an increase in the number of very hot days coupled with a decrease in the number of very cold days, is expected to have a significant impact on our health. This picture doesn’t mean much until we translate it to what it means for our health. After all, according to the band Third World, we are used to 96° in the shade.
Temperature-related illnesses and deaths will likely increase as a consequence. Air pollution incidences are likely to also increase. We have been seeing more forest fires of late, as well as increases in incidences of spontaneous combustion at our dumps, which have resulted in a higher number of visitations to hospitals and health centres across the island.
With intense rainfall and long periods of drought, outbreaks of diseases become more likely. Malaria, dengue fever and typhoid are but a few maladies that may become more common in the future; shortages of food and water will undoubtedly amplify the impact. Whereas man can go for at least a month without food, we can last no more than seven days without water. Malnutrition may increase as our agricultural sector feels the effects of climate change and our economy crumbles under the mounting importation bill. Costs for basic food supplies may rise, which will have a profound impact on the more vulnerable in our society. The poor, the elderly and our children are likely to be the ones at the forefront of the impact.
While the picture is not as bad as it sounds currently, without adequate mitigation and adaptation measures the impact on our health and the health sector may become too much to handle.
Coral reefs & shoreline protection
It is likely that our already decimated coral reefs will continue to suffer, and incidences of coral bleaching may potentially increase, but there is some good news. There is much research ongoing in the field of coral reef restoration. Some of our coral species have shown a potential to be more resilient in the face of increasing sea temperatures brought on by climate change. This research will allow us to propagate these species on a large scale in order to restore our damaged coral reefs. The impact of this type of research is very profound. Coral reefs aid in shoreline protection by reducing the wave energy of storm surges, thereby reducing the impact of these on infrastructure along our coasts.
At least 60% of our population lives within a few kilometers of our coast. Storm surge and its impacts are not new to us; communities within Portland Bight and other environs can attest to the impact. The residential community of Caribbean Terrace, one of the most affected in recent history, was almost destroyed by the ravages of Hurricane Dean, which spawned a near-50-foot-high storm surge. This picture is easily replicable along the North Coast, and the likelihood of an even greater economic impact is looming. Our tourism industry sits along our North Coast, protected by coral reef in many areas — or the little that is left.
Our number one destination, Negril, is under constant threat, as the loss of coral has aided in the constant erosion of beach sand and the retreat of the shoreline, which now puts several tourism-related developments at risk.
Coral reefs are also a critical resource for our fisheries. A significant portion of our protein budget consists of fish and fish products, and our fisheries are threatened by the demise of coral reefs. This could have a major effect on our economy, in respect to provision of jobs and contribution to GDP. Almost 200,000 individuals depend on fishing, directly and indirectly, for income.
As highlighted by Arlington D. Chesney, executive director of the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI), the important agriculture sector is highly climate-sensitive. He went on to further state that the region’s agriculture sector, already besieged by international economic threats, will find it difficult adapting to the impacts of climate change. With this in mind, he emphasized the need and urgency for actions aimed at developing climate-smart agriculture.
The impacts to the agricultural sector have so far been evident in lower yields and more diseases among local crops. The Planning Institute of Jamaica reported losses of US $27 million from 1973 to 2003 in the sector because of severe weather events.
An increase in drought conditions is likely in the future, as global warming trends show no sign of letting up. This will only exacerbate the availability of irrigation water for agriculture, putting an even greater strain on our economy. The lack of rainfall will, in addition to the impacts on crops, increase the production costs for our farmers, who are already complaining about the level of imports and pricing of agricultural produce. This will create an even greater divide and drive up the importation of cheaper goods, with a subsequent larger effect on the GDP, net international reserves and the value of the Jamaican dollar.
Periods of flash flooding have the potential to wipe out an entire growing season of crops in one fell swoop. The memories of previous severe flash-flood incidences are not lost on Jamaicans, as we recall Tropical Storm Nicole costing the sector more than JA $500 million.
Where do we go from here?
These are but a few of the likely impacts from climate change. Without necessary changes implemented by our world leaders, the outcome is likely to be very dire for small island states such as Jamaica that have fragile economies and ecosystems. Our natural beauty, through our people and biodiversity, ranks high internationally; however, our vulnerability is similarly weighted. Without action now, we run the risk of being left behind and succumbing to not only the lack of action by the developed world but also inaction at home by our leaders.
As the saying goes, “with climate change we must also change.”