As one of the lowest-lying places on earth, Cayman could feel the effects of climate change sooner than most. National Trust climate change expert Catherine Childs sat down with the Cayman Compass to discuss what the island needs to do and why we have a responsibility to future generations to act fast.
What would you like to see implemented in Cayman in terms of a climate change policy?
The Department of Environment wrote an excellent climate change policy in 2011 that was never implemented. I’m heartened that Minister Suckoo recently called for the policy to be reviewed and adopted. The Cayman Islands must prepare for the effects of climate change as quickly as possible.
Adequate preparation should include a broad-based approach that goes beyond critical environmental issues such as ecosystem and biodiversity protection to include health and safety issues, enforced planning regulations, renewable energy adoption, food security, and ensuring social equity for vulnerable populations.
How can we build climate resiliency in Cayman? And what does ‘climate resilience’ look like to you?
We must protect mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass beds as nature-based solutions to increase our resilience to climate change. These ecosystems improve biodiversity by providing habitat for marine species but also support coastal resilience by reducing flood risk to nearby communities.
They are well-known as some of the most effective and least expensive solutions in Disaster Risk Reduction as well as climate mitigation and adaptation. Ecosystem-based adaptation can significantly reduce risks associated with climate change and offer a cost-effective approach to climate-smart, sustainable development.
To be truly resilient, however, we must incorporate future-planning into all of our decisions as a country going forward. New building permits must be considered with climate projections in mind, urban spaces should include shade trees and other measures to reduce the ‘heat island effect’, local farmers must be supported to increase food security, and solar panels should be installed on the homes of low-income families. These and other similar measures will reduce the shocks of future changes on our community and help us better adapt.
What are the primary threats that climate change poses to low-lying islands like ours? Are we experiencing any of the effects now?
People usually think of sea level rise when they consider the effects of climate change in Cayman because we have an average elevation on Grand Cayman of only 7 ft. Unfortunately, ice in the Arctic and in Antarctica is melting faster than scientists predicted and so we must get serious about preparing for sea level rise of at least one meter by 2100, probably more. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve already seen sea level rise of about 20 cm (8 in).
People expect to see it first as the sea coming further up the beach, but oftentimes communities first experience it as water coming up from underneath their feet. In South Florida, they call it ‘sunny day flooding’ and it’s common now, especially during King Tides.
We have the same porous limestone geology and as the sea level creeps up, the underground freshwater lens gets pushed up by the salt water, often above the surface of the ground, creating flooding events without any rainfall. Miami Beach has already spent millions of dollars adapting to this problem.
We mustn’t forget about other important effects of climate change that we will also experience in Cayman. It is likely that we will see longer dry seasons and when the rains come, we will experience more serious flooding events. We will also see stronger hurricanes. The summers will be hotter and they will last longer. This heat will make it very difficult for people who work outside to do their jobs effectively and safely.
It is likely that vector-born diseases such as dengue will become more widespread. Higher water temperatures and ocean acidification will negatively affect our coral reefs. Bleaching events will probably happen more often and shelled organisms will find it harder to reproduce successfully due to the failure of their larval stages.
All of these effects are already being experienced to some degree but will accelerate as time goes on. This is not a ‘new normal’ because it will not stabilise with a new and predictable pattern, but will continue to get worse unless we quickly address the issue.
Has Cayman done enough to prepare for the impacts of climate change? Are we ‘behind’ in preparing?
Very few countries have done enough to prepare for climate change and Cayman could definitely be doing more. The earlier we start planning and preparing, the cheaper and more effective the solutions will be.
What role do you see young people playing in driving the climate discussion here? Are you encouraged by their activism?
The young people of the Cayman Islands have joined with others from around the world to demand change. I’m incredibly proud of them and embarrassed by my own generation. We’ve had a very short-term focus and have plundered our natural resources with little regard for the future. In our defence, many people didn’t realise that small actions at a local level could add together to create such large changes globally. But we know better now and it is unconscionable that we continue to behave in the same way, doing the same things that brought us here. It is our responsibility to leave a healthy earth for our children and it is their right to ask us to consider their futures as well.