Low-lying islands like Grand Cayman could become uninhabitable within the next century without “transformative change” in the global approach to climate change.
That’s the verdict of Rueanna Haynes, a climate analyst and guest speaker at the RF Cayman Economic Outlook conference.
The potential for ‘monster’ storms like Hurricane Dorian, which hit the Bahamas last year, and the likelihood of significant sea-level rise pose an existential threat to many Caribbean islands, Haynes said.
Two metres of sea-level rise would leave almost all of Grand Cayman under water, she told delegates at the conference at the Kimpton Seafire Resort last week. Long before that happens, she warned, the island’s freshwater lens and its capacity to sustain a community would be compromised.
Even with a significant international effort to abandon coal and limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees C – the most optimistic scenario – she said island nations would need to brace for some inevitable impacts.
Governments should be implementing national strategies, including planning codes that factor in sea-level rise, she added.
Speaking to the Cayman Compass after the conference, she said, “Transformative change looks like phasing out coal completely by 2030; it looks like governments coming forward with plans that are consistent with a 1.5 degree pathway and actually implementing them; it looks like the private sector remobilising to help government with the huge bill that is going to be required.”
While small countries can have little global impact in cutting greenhouse gases, she believes converting to clean energy is imperative.
“The science is telling us we do not have much time.
“We need to get rid of coal in the next 10 years or nothing else we do will matter.”
Small islands, including Cayman, should “lead by example”, she said.
“It is very difficult and affects credibility for us to come into the international process demanding that others do more, when at home, nothing is actually being done.”
In contrast to low-lying island nations in the Pacific, she believes many Caribbean islands have not yet done enough.
Climate change is sometimes seen as a ‘rich person’s issue’ and often falls down the pecking order of political priorities compared to crime, jobs and wages. But she believes storms like Dorian and Irma are starting to move it up the agenda.
“Climate-change planning is a hard sell but as impacts continue to ramp up it will, unfortunately, become an easier sell sooner rather than later,” she said.
Across the world, climate-change sceptics are hindering efforts to cut emissions and to develop plans that can help protect coastal communities from the impacts of a warming planet.
But Haynes believes the sheer number of climate-related emergencies, from ‘category 6’ hurricanes in the Caribbean to heatwaves in India and devastating wildfires in Australia, is starting to change that dynamic.
“Climate denial is in its final, most desperate stages,” she told the Compass.
“There is a growing recognition and understanding that something is happening, that climate change is real.”
‘1.5 to stay alive’
Though the Paris Agreement on climate only involves commitments aimed at limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees C, small island nations have pushed for a more ambitious target, coining the slogan ‘1.5 to stay alive’ in recognition that they are on the frontlines of climate-change impacts.
“I truly hope we can get there but because of the time frames involved, it is difficult,” Haynes said.
“We have a short space of time to take serious action and we have a suite of global leaders who could care less.”
On a personal level, she said, people should not feel they are too small or too insignificant to make a change.
She told delegates at the conference, “Each and every one of us has been gifted with power that is specific to us.
“It is our moral responsibility to use our gifts and talent in the struggle for the survival of our species.”
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