Climate change, like hurricanes, calls for non-partisan policy and responses

Anjani Ganase, marine biologist, discusses the response of small island states to extreme events like hurricane Irma. This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday, September 14, 2017

In the wake of hurricane Irma, the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin closely followed by hurricane Jose, the question of whether climate change is affecting the frequency and intensity of hurricanes in the Caribbean has once again come into question. Unfortunately, at the moment there is no certainty of whether the intense and frequent hurricanes of a single year are a result of human induced trends. Only future observations over multiple years and a better historical cyclone record will allow us to determine whether these trends are part of a long-term natural cycle or the result of a warming planet. What we do know, based on the climate assessment reports provided by the intergovernmental panel on climate change, (IPCC) is that cyclone activity in the Atlantic basin has been increasing since the 1970s. It is also predicted (although unlikely to be detected at the moment) that the frequency of more intense hurricanes is likely to grow as a result of warmer sea surface temperatures (IPCC Report 2013). Warmer water results in more water vapour, which fuels the hurricane system.
The NOAA satellite captures a geocolor image of Hurricane Irma as it passes the eastern end of Cuba. Photo credit: NOAA/CIRA
The IPCC predicts the effects of warmer atmospheric temperatures on small-island nations, some of which will certainly occur over the next 100 years. One major problem is sea-level rise, and the myriad issues that come with it, including coastal erosion, especially during periods of storm surge and high wave activity. Seawater will undermine infrastructure; contaminate ground water and sewerage systems, as well as freshwater ecosystems. Current observations show that the Caribbean has a mean sea-level rise rate of 1.8mm/ year, which is similar to the global average, while sea-level rise around the Pacific islands is increasing at a much faster rate. In regard to other weather patterns, under both future scenarios (business as usual carbon emissions and reduced carbon emissions), it is expected that warmer atmospheric temperatures will result in extended dry seasons and droughts in the southern Caribbean, while there will be more rainfall during the wet season in the northern Caribbean. All these changes will have direct impacts on the ecosystems – watersheds, agricultural lands, wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs - that we rely on for our livelihoods.

It is virtually certain that global mean sea level rise rates are accelerating.  Projected increases to the year 2100 (RCP4.5: 0.35 m to 0.70 m) superimposed on extreme sea level events (e.g. swell waves, storm surges, El Niño-Southern Oscillation) present severe sea flood and erosion risks for low-lying coastal areas and atoll islands (high confidence).- IPCC

Other ecological impacts from warmer conditions include the potential increase in the transmission of diseases, including vector borne diseases such as Zika, Chikungunya and Dengue that infect our population, as well as other diseases that can infect flora and fauna. Furthermore, cases of respiratory illnesses, such as asthma and allergies related to the dust clouds originating from a more arid Sahara basin and travel across the Atlantic to the eastern Caribbean is also expected to increase  (IPCC Report 2014).

Adaptation to climate change generates larger benefit to small islands when delivered in conjunction with other development activities, such as disaster risk reduction and community-based approaches to development (medium confidence). Addressing the critical social, economic, and environmental issues of the day, raising awareness, and communicating future risks to local communities will likely increase human and environmental resilience to the longer-term impacts of climate change.” – Recommendation by the IPCC

Whether it is stronger hurricanes, sea level rise, drought or biological invasion, it is crucial that governments heed these warnings and work out transparent plans to reduce the risk of impact. Trinidad and Tobago has been fortunate to have a stable economy from the oil and gas industry but there is need for major investments into mitigating impacts. This should be done with transparency and with community engagement, so that climate awareness and action enter our homes and lives. While maintaining infrastructure and instilling stricter policies on housing and business development (especially development near important ecosystems and along coastlines and river ways) will help reduce economic damage, much of the future relies on the protection of our natural ecosystems and community awareness.

Most of our major towns in Trinidad and Tobago – Scarborough, Port of Spain and San Fernando - lie on the coasts. The Caroni and Nariva swamps collect much of the water from rainfall and will buffer the inundation events of the sea during storms. Keeping these waterways clear will help flood-prone areas. Preserving mangrove areas will reduce the damaging effects of storm surge. Coral reefs also act as natural wave breaks against storm surge, and the protection of the reefs from over-exploitation and pollution will give them the best chance to adapt to changing climate conditions and therefore to continue to serve their important economic roles. Preserving the rainforest, stricter laws on deforestation and squatting on watershed areas, will increase the storage capacity of water reserves and reduce wasted water, especially important during times of drought.

Another major problem noted by the IPCC is: the inaction inherent in the mismatch of the short-term time scale on which government decisions are generally taken compared with the long-term time scale required for decisions related to climate change. Governments need to implement policies that mandate climate change infrastructure; on the understanding that such policies must be non-partisan by nature, so that policies cannot be overturned from one government administration to the next.
Low lying islands, such as Malé the capital of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, are under threat of rising sea levels. Photo credit: Shahee Ilyas (
Link to the latest IPCC Reports:


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