Cayman is no ‘island’

Think we live in a big world? Think we live on three little islands, separate from that big world? Think again.

When the Pacific island of Krakatoa exploded in 1893, it was reported to have been heard by a man in Cayman Brac. The claim is unconfirmed but some believe it is possible that sound waves from that humongous volcanic eruption bounced around the atmosphere all the way to the Caribbean. Tourist arrivals in the Cayman Islands plummeted to virtually zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. I remember walking on Seven Mile Beach the following week and being shocked by how deserted it was. I did not see a single tourist for miles. It made me think about how connected Cayman is to events far away. When I had a problem with a new laptop a couple of months ago, I called the toll-free customer service number and, I didn’t ask, but I’m pretty sure I was helped by someone on the other side of the world. I can remember when a flight to Europe seemed like some Homeric odyssey. Now it’s just a matter of a meal, a movie and a nap and you’re there. Big-world thinking is dead. Walt Disney was right; it’s a small world, after all. So much of the world is now connected and interdependent that it’s not just wrong, it’s self-defeating to pretend otherwise.

Cayman’s population stands to benefit from a more realistic perspective on its place in the current world because for all the talk about the Cayman Islands being three islands, they are hardly that in any sense beyond basic geography. The Cayman Islands are tied tightly to the world at large and it would be beneficial if more Caymanians and more of our politicians had a better appreciation of this reality.

A critical example of how the small-world perception matters to us is global warming or climate change. It’s just a hunch, but I would estimate that more than two-thirds of Cayman’s permanent population does not believe in climate change. Of the one-third who understand the science well enough to accept it, probably most of them don’t care much about it. One can understand why this issue might seem irrelevant or trivial to so many at first glance. After all, Cayman is hardly one of the world’s major industrialized societies. We contribute relatively nothing to the global output of greenhouse gasses. It’s not our fault and not our problem, right? No, unfortunately, we need to know about climate change and we should care about it very much because it directly impacts us. We may be three isolated islands in the minds of many but this flawed perception doesn’t protect us from climate change. Ask a few veteran scuba divers on Grand Cayman how our coral reefs look today compared with twenty or thirty years ago. I guarantee they will shake their head with sadness and then proceed to tell you a tragic tale about a rapidly vanishing treasure than cannot be replaced. Not all coral decline is attributable to climate change, of course. Some of it, no doubt, is owed to our own idiotic anti-environment policies and behaviours-but much of it is due to climate change, say marine scientists. The ocean (Note the use of the singular “ocean”. There is really just one giant connected ocean, regardless of what you were taught in primary school) may seem vast and mighty, impervious to our meddling, but the truth is that we are doing great harm to its natural state and processes. And there are consequences. For example, ocean acidification-another non-issue to the people of the Cayman Islands—is wreaking havoc on the entire food web.

If being surrounded by dead reefs and a dying ocean doesn’t bother you, maybe tropical diseases will. Climate change is expected to bring about a shakeup in the distribution of disease-carrying bugs. This could mean serious new health challenges for people living in places like the Cayman Islands that have been mostly safe in recent decades.

Another climate change challenge that should keep every Caymanian up at night worrying—but doesn’t—is sea level change. There are some very disturbing scenarios of what might be in store for us over the next several decades. And it’s important to keep in mind that these warnings do not come from scientifically illiterate rabble-rousers and clueless politicians but from credible experts-the people who actually research climate change rather than just deny it at all costs. For a country that directly profits from its beaches via tourism, one would think there would be widespread concern over predictions of rising sea levels and more destructive storm surges. But there simply has not been much reaction to it. The reason, I suspect, is because of that common belief in a big world that wrongly portrays Cayman as tiny islands off on their own, safely isolated and far away from the troubles of the world. The hard truth, however, is that we are a part of the world and climate change is our problem too.