Climate Change in the Caribbean: Crisis Diplomacy for Small Island Developing States – Conner Fitzpatrick

Sea levels are rising globally, threatening the world’s coastal and island communities. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, small island developing states (SIDS), despite being “among the least responsible of all nations for climate change… are likely to suffer strongly from its adverse effects and could in some cases even become uninhabitable.” And, SIDS have been designated as more susceptible to a number of economic, social, and ecological crises, such as “external economic shocks, including to a large range of impacts from climate change and potentially more frequent and intense natural disasters.”

Islands in the Caribbean are rendered particularly vulnerable, as some of the region’s primary industries – tourism, fishing, and agriculture – rely heavily on the stability of its ecosystems. Those ecosystems are now at risk of degradation due to rising water levels, increasing sea temperatures, and unpredictable weather patterns brought about by climate change. In the face of these emerging threats, island nations and territories in the Caribbean must consider their subnational identity in order to develop microregional solutions to global crises impacting the region.

The Caribbean, characterized by the territories bordering or fully encompassed by the Caribbean Sea, is often difficult to think of as a unified entity. While institutions such as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) promote integration in economic and foreign policy, in practice there is limited international cooperation relative to other globally significant regions in the area of climate change. Part of the challenge is that the Caribbean is stratified by a diverse set of peoples differentiated and simultaneously connected by their cultural, linguistic, and political ties. While connected in some aspects, the various nations and territories of the Caribbean are divided by their expansive maritime boundaries. Overcoming physical and cultural barriers through public diplomacy at the subnational level is a crucial step toward addressing climate change at its pressure points.

The Caribbean is highly fragmented by its differences. One of the most stark is financial. For example, while The Bahamas is an upper-middle income country with a GDP per capita of $25,600, Haiti’s is merely $1,800, making it the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and one of the poorest nations in the world. Similarly, population sizes range from over 11 million in the case of Cuba to just over 50,000 in Saint Kitts and Nevis.

Varying geopolitical statuses also define the region – while there are 13 sovereign island states in the Caribbean, 13 territories are categorized as dependencies of other nations, together with others (such as Bonaire and Guadeloupe) that have been fully integrated into the countries governing them from abroad. A few territories – such as the British Crown Dependencies, the French Collectivity of Saint Martin, and Puerto Rico, among others – have no acting legislative representation nationally or internationally due to the nature of their relationships. These varied political statuses limit their equality of voice in public diplomacy on the global stage.

Language both connects and divides the region. While Spanish is the primary language of millions of people in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, English is also spoken by millions in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados, and numerous other Caribbean territories. French, Dutch, and a number of indigenous and creole languages are similarly spoken throughout the region. The existence of diverse languages sometimes serves as an additional barrier to achieving a cohesive regional identity between the Caribbean’s many islands.

While linguistic, cultural, economic, cultural, and geopolitical diversity are no doubt valuable in a global context, they also fragment the Caribbean in its efforts toward regional cooperation. For example, because of the region’s financial disparities, “adaptive capacity is uneven across and within countries,” limiting the ability to implement a comprehensive regional strategy in an area already divided through its insular nature.

Take, for example, the case of climate change. Climate change is largely seen as an environmental issue – but its predicted economic impacts in the Caribbean are tangible. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, “projections indicate that losses could total US$22 billion annually by 2050,” a figure that represents approximately 10 percent of the total Caribbean economy. Additionally, sea levels are rising at a rate of about two to four centimeters each year, putting further pressure on freshwater resources and throwing the region’s fragile ecosystems out of balance.

Of course, there are a number of international organizations aiming to curb the adverse effects of climate change in the Caribbean. The United Nations Environmental Programme’s Caribbean Environment Programme (UNEP-CEP), the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), and the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) provide resources to enhance regional policy decisions and make communities more resilient to natural disasters. CARICOM also provides a forum for member states to voice their concerns regarding crises impacting the region. However, because of the fragmented governmental structures that exist in the Caribbean, not all territories are adequately represented in the policymaking process, as they often lack the resources necessary to take part in global or regional policy discussions.

This gap in representation must be filled by a third option, namely nongovernmental organizations. Nongovernmental organizations must be equipped to serve as a platform for stakeholders at the micro-regional level to voice their concerns macroregionally. For effective consensus-building to take place, Caribbean stakeholders must reconsider their national identities in favor of subnational ones to ensure that all those involved have an equitable role in driving solutions to shared regional challenges. The focus needs to shift toward local insight and what connects a region as a whole, not what divides it.

The islands of the Caribbean are rendered particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Through their many linguistic, cultural, institutional, and geographic divisions, Caribbean islanders often lack the ability to contribute fully to international dialogue on the policies that impact their communities. By driving public diplomacy through a model centered on subnational identity, small island developing states will gain an inclusive, collaborative approach to addressing regional and global crises such as climate change.

Author: Conner Fitzpatrick is the Managing Director of the Caribbean Society.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to pr@islandssociety.org. Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: anonymonk (Flickr CC)

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