Small island states like Cayman rank among the world’s most vulnerable in climate change projections.
While small island developing states contribute less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations, climate scientists anticipate they will feel the greatest and most immediate effects of warming oceans and sea level rise.
The threats to small islands are so imminent that the United Nations General Assembly will dedicate one of five days of summits this week to sustainable development and climate resilience in such nations.
The United Nations gathers in New York this week for five summits, beginning Monday, 23 Sept. with the highly anticipated Climate Action Summit and ending Friday, 27 Sept. with the midterm review of the SAMOA Pathway, a framework for small island states established in 2014 for sustainable development.
Among the overarching goals of the week will be securing a pathway to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
For low-lying islands, achieving the 1.5°C goal is matter of survival, explained climate consultant Lisa-Ann Hurlston-McKenzie of the National Conservation Council.
The difference between the ideal goal of 1.5°C and minimum goal of 2°C of warming, Hurlston-McKenzie said, will mean “tens of millions of people less affected and a large percentage of species that wouldn’t be affected or wouldn’t potentially become extinct by 2100”.
Climate scientists expect warming to exceed 1.5°C well before 2100, however.
“Most climate scientists believe that time horizon will be brought forward by some 50 years. So it’s urgent,” she said, adding that warming of 2°C will be devastating to small islands.
Hurlston-McKenzie contributed to creating one of the few policy statements that advises on climate change in the Cayman Islands, the 2011 draft document, ‘Achieving a Low Carbon Climate Resilient Economy: Cayman Islands’ Climate Change Policy’.
The document warns that Caribbean countries will be among the earliest and worst affected by climate change.
“Their small size, relative isolation, concentration of communities and infrastructure in coastal areas, narrow economic bases, dependence on natural resources, susceptibility to external shocks and limited financial, technical and institutional capacities are inherent vulnerabilities of small island developing states,” the policy states.
Storms such as Hurricane Ivan in 2004 demonstrated the natural vulnerability of the Cayman Islands – more than 70% of Grand Cayman flooded during the storm, with some areas experiencing flooding of up to 10 feet. The $2.8 billion in losses incurred from the storm was equivalent to 183% of the GDP, the policy states.
With a concentration of developments near the coast, Hurlston-McKenzie says Cayman faces some tough decisions.
“We’ve created this coastal squeeze issue along Seven Mile Beach and maybe some of our other beaches due to our tourism facilities or condos and real estate, which sort of is a third pillar of our economy. What do we do?” she said.
Sandy beaches and a sustainable tourism industry are not the only matters at risk. Unmitigated climate change will also come with threats to agriculture, complicated by salt water intrusion in soils, and to health and wellness, complicated by a rise in vector-borne diseases.
As Cayman’s climate change policy states: “Achieving a low-carbon, climate resilient economy is not an option for the Cayman Islands – it is necessary for our very survival.”
Despite the direness of the warning, Hurlston-McKenzie points out that the climate change policy has remained in draft form.
“I would hazard a guess that not much of the work, given the time that has passed now, is really remembered by that many people and it sort of really is up to the Department of Environment to keep it ever present,” she said.
One climate mitigation policy that has been implemented is the National Energy Policy 2017‑2037.
That policy has taken recent steps forward, such as implementing duty concessions for electric vehicles to reduce emissions
The National Energy Policy also establishes the aspiration of limiting 2020 per capita greenhouse gas emissions to the 2014 level.
“I strongly suspect we won’t [meet the 2020 goal] because even though the policy time frame is from 2017, the government has, for whatever reason … [had] a lag time in actually implementing the policy in earnest,” Hurlston-McKenzie said.
Despite delays in policy action, groups of climate activists in the Cayman Islands have galvanised in recent years around issues such as plastic pollution, beach conservation, and the proposed George Town cruise dock.
On Friday, Cayman Islands students joined the global climate strike, with hundreds of demonstrators gathering on the George Town waterfront to demand action on climate change. The climate strike inspired millions of young people around the world to organise local movements and served as a precursor to Monday’s Climate Action Summit.
The Cayman Islands will not have its own representative at the United Nations summits this week. United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson is scheduled to speak during the Monday’s summit at 4:30pm local time.
Among small island developing state leaders addressing the General Assembly during Monday’s Climate Action Summit will be Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley, Saint Lucia Prime Minister Allen Michael Chastanet, Palau President Tommy Esang Remengesau Jr. and Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.