The security implications of climate change are largely tied to social and economic forces. Environmental issues such as land degradation, sea level rise, and natural disasters significantly impact the livelihood of human populations across the world and states’ abilities to provide basic services to their inhabitants. The Caribbean is especially at risk because it will be exposed to a greater range of climate impacts while having a relatively weak adaptive capacity in comparison to the rest of the world. Climate change will likely exacerbate existing regional underdevelopment and security issues, undermining U.S. foreign policy efforts in the Western Hemisphere.
A majority of Caribbean islands interact with the global economy by exporting commodities and providing services, such as tourism and financial services. Their small size limits their ability to achieve economies of scale and economic specialization. Tourism is the most important industry, accounting for about 15 percent of the region’s gross domestic product. Because the tourism industry is largely dependent upon the existence of beaches, natural tropical resorts, and comfortable weather, intensified weather conditions and environmental degradation could deter tourists and worsen national economies.
In the Caribbean, there has been an increase in mean temperatures over the last three decades. The level of warming is still likely to lead to significant sea level rise, deterioration of coastal areas, and reduced water resources. This would cause significant changes in the ecology and weather patterns and exacerbate existing social and economic vulnerabilities.
The geographical location of Caribbean islands, along with the high exposure of people, infrastructure, and resources along the coasts make the archipelago vulnerable to natural disasters. Since 1990, the number of people affected by weather events has increased becausemore people are moving to urban centers located in coastal areas. More than half of the population in the Caribbean lives within 1.5 km of the shoreline, and most of the islands’ economic activity is located there as well.
Future changes to rainfall distribution would make water resources more vulnerable. Many islands rely exclusively on underground water for their drinking supplies. Heavy rainfall would decrease the amount of time the water has to seep into the ground before it is extractable. Lower rainfall would reduce the amount of water that can be harvested, reduce river flow, and slow the rate of recharge of the aquifers. According to the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology & Hydrology, several islands reported extremely dry weather in August 2012, indicating unusual dry spells in the region. Shortages of water and poor water quality would contribute to an increased risk of disease including cholera, diarrhea, and dengue fever.
The International Development Bank estimates climate change will cost Caribbean economies between $110 and $149 billion. Having to respond to climate change derails countries’ abilities to address other major issues such as poverty, disease, social services, security, and sustainable energy. Recovering from large storms, rising sea levels, and the spread of diseases will take much longer for under-resourced countries. Paying the costs may be ultimately unaffordable.
Slow moving environmental change and intensified weather events also have the potential to weaken development efforts and undermine the U.S. policy objectives of promoting economic and social opportunity, strengthening citizen security, enhancing democratic governance, and securing a clean energy future in the region. Geographic proximity to the Caribbean engenders a wide array of interests, including economic, political, security, and humanitarian concerns. The United States should work to lessen the impact of climate change and strengthen its leadership in the region.
Promote Increased Hemispheric Climate Change Collaboration
Issues such as climate change provide an opportunity for the United States to enhance partnerships and collaborative efforts throughout the hemisphere that would allow it to better address shared interests. Since climate change cannot be adequately addressed by any one country alone, there is no better time for the United States to articulate a clear policy agenda for the Western Hemisphere that promotes economic progress, environmental and energy sustainability, and collaboration on security issues. The Caribbean region has contributed very little to greenhouse gas emissions, but will be more impacted than other regions. Given the lack of international consensus on how to limit carbon emissions, efforts regarding climate change should focus on adaptation, mitigation, and education. The United States should lead the effort by proposing the establishment of an Inter-American Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which could have as potential co-chairs international institutions such as the International Development Bank, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the United Nations Environmental Programme. This effort would reflect President Obama’s goal of “leading international efforts to address global climate change,” as detailed in his Climate Action Plan, and establish the groundwork for enhanced partnerships in the Western Hemisphere.
Alejandro Garcia is a graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs in the Security Policy Studies program. He has a double bachelor’s degree in Geography and Latin American Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles.