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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November-December 2010

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Caribbean Islands in a Changing Climate

The Caribbean Sea is the second largest sea in the world, covering an area of approximately 2,515,900 kilometers. The region has the largest number of small island developing states (SIDS) and the highest number of maritime boundaries in the world, involving 22 independent countries and 17 territories with a population of more than 40 million (see Figure 1).1 Critical to human well-being in the region are the seascape/landscape aesthetics and diverse cultural mix. The region is one of the most tourism-dependent in the world, with the travel industry providing almost 1 million direct and indirect jobs and contributing a quarter of the region's foreign exchange earnings. Economic growth has, however, failed to keep pace with population growth on many islands.2 That being said, these island states, with a few notable exceptions, are not grouped within the poorest countries of the world.

Caption: Figure 1: Map of the Caribbean Sea Region with hypothetical exclusive economic zone (EEZ) boundaries.1 It should be noted that these EEZ lines are estimated and are not official boundaries.

Caribbean watersheds are undergoing an exceptional loss of habitat with only about 10 percent of their primary terrestrial vegetation intact, significantly affecting the viability of keystone faunal species, such as the St. Vincent parrot.3 In addition, coastal zone resources are under threat from pressures such as hotel and resort construction, beach sand mining, marina channel development, waste disposal from yachts and shipping, and non-indigenous factory fishing vessels. Added to these threats are the risks posed by today's climate extremes and the uncertain but potentially disastrous impacts of climate change in the near and longer terms. This article outlines these combined threats and the unique risks posed in the Caribbean context, as well as existing mechanisms and recommendations for strengthening regional resilience in changing climate.

Caribbean Island Environments: Thresholds and Conditioning Factors

The specific characteristics of Caribbean island environments and histories condition the region's sensitivity to climate risks. These characteristics reflect an intimate relationship between economic development and environmental assets, ranging from (1) the ecological services based on a limited and fragile resource base, and (2) socioeconomic factors, (for example, the extreme openness of their small economies, in terms of the transnational movement of goods and services), to (3) geographical factors, such as their small physical dimensions, making coastal resource planning and management synonymous with national planning and management.46

When sorted by the number of global disaster events per unit area, small island states occupy 19 out the top 20 places at risk.7 The reality of “island vulnerability” is further illustrated by the devastation wreaked by single hurricanes on entire countries. For example, Hurricane Ivan (2004) resulted in losses of 212 percent and 138 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in Grenada and the Cayman Islands, respectively.8

Table 1 illustrates the wide intraregional variation of measures of development. With a few exceptions (such as for Grenada and St. Kitts), population densities in Caribbean islands continue to increase.9,10 National population densities mask high local aggregations in urbanized locations where up to 70 percent of the regional population resides. While the region's colonial and cultural histories have determined present settlement patterns, more recent physical and social transformations are rapidly altering patterns of land and resource use. In addition, several researchers have noted the increased international migration and subsequent remittances that help supplement present-day small island livelihoods.11,12

Table: Table 1. Key development and environment statistics for selected Caribbean territories (nd—no data).8,9

Pop Density Pers/1000ha projected

HDI Rank 2003

Tourism Expenditure As %GDP

Tourism intensity Per km

Renewable Water Per cap m3/yr

Forest cover Change 1990–2000

% area protected incl. MPAs

































































St. Kitts/Nevis










St. Lucia










St. Vincent/Grenadines






























Dominican Republic




















While not discussed here in detail, it should be noted that only a few Caribbean states have proven petroleum and natural gas resources. All have wave, solar, and wind resources. Access to reliable and affordable energy is a vital element in most small islands where the high cost of energy is regarded as a barrier to the goal of attaining sustainable development.

Scales of Climate Variability and Change in the Caribbean

Caribbean rainfall regimes are characterized by pronounced wet and dry seasons, with as much as 65 percent of annual rainfall totals falling during the wet season (June to December). This rainfall is associated largely with the northerly migration of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and the passage of major weather systems such as easterly waves and tropical storms.13 The region also displays significant differences in climatology from north to south and from lowlands to highlands on even the smallest islands. Major gaps in knowledge exist as to how climate drivers at these subregional scales will themselves be altered in a changing climate.

In recent years the Caribbean has experienced sequences of significant climate events, including impacts from the 1997–1998 El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event, two consecutive years of very high hurricane activity (2004, 2005) the highest sea surface temperatures (SSTs) on record (2005), and severe, widespread drought (2009–2010).

Seasonal to Decadal Variability of Extreme Events: Floods, Droughts, and Storms

El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events are known to modify the annual cycle of rainfall over different part s of the Caribbean.14 The relationship starts with a drying signal during the October-December period and then builds to an intense wet signal by April–July of the following year due to delayed warming of the tropical Atlantic.15 As is well documented, El Niño conditions are also likely to suppress the development of hurricanes in the Atlantic, while La Niña (cold conditions in the equatorial Pacific) favors hurricane formation.13

There are also links between the Arctic/North Atlantic Oscillation and seasonal to decadal variability of Caribbean rainfall. 16 Positive index values indicate anomalously high pressures across the subtropical Atlantic. The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO—based on SSTs variations in the North Atlantic) varies on a 50- to 90-year time scale and has been in a warm phase since 1975. The AMO is strongly linked to the accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) on the decadal time scale, in the main storm development region of the Atlantic.17 The ACE is a wind-based measure of the energy available for storm formation and maintenance

Hurricane activity was significantly greater during the 1950s and 1960s than from the 1970s through the early 1990s. 18 At the national level, socioeconomic factors have multiplied potential disaster magnitudes (not accounting for adaptation). For instance, based on trends over a twenty-year period (1960–1980) in two simple variables, population and wealth, hurricane-related loss potential in the Dominican Republic, increased by a factor of 8.5 for the same storm magnitude.19 From 1995 to 2009 the number of named tropical storms (hurricanes) in the Atlantic averaged 14.5 (7.6) per year, while for 1980 to 1994 these averaged 11.6 (6.1) per year in spite of two years (1997, 2007) of low hurricane incidence. The seasonal average of the ACE index for 1995–2000 was almost twice that of the 1980–1994 period. As a result of these events the period since 1995 has resulted in significantly increased awareness among the public and leadership of both climate risks and preexisting vulnerabilities throughout the Caribbean. The possibility exists that the activity observed since 1995 is the result of multidecadal changes in Atlantic SSTs and vertical shear, and of improvements in the observational network. At the time of this writing, the 2010 season is projected to be very active with ocean conditions similar to those of 2005.

Droughts have received relatively little attention by researchers and planners in the region. Studies show a significant drying trend in the Caribbean–Central American Region, with the potential for up to a 20 percent reduction in rainfall by the end of the century.20 When Hurricane Georges impacted Cuba in 1998, the country was already experiencing a severe drought, compounding impacts on an already stressed populace. The 2004–2005 Cuban drought (69 percent below normal rainfall) resulted in 2.6 million people having to rely solely on truck-borne water. Droughts also result in loss of near-shore habitat because of declines in freshwater inputs21 and saline intrusion as observed in the southern Caribbean during 2009–2010.21

Caption: Figure 2: Hurricane Ivan was one of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded. In 2004 it caused catastrophic damage to many Caribbean Islands, including the Cayman Islands. This is the Tarpon Lake, where the force of the wind threw uprooted palm trees.

Potential Impacts of Climatic Change

For the Caribbean region, projected increases of 1.5–2°C in global air temperature imply22,23:

  • Decreased length of the rainy season and increased length of the dry season: 6–8 percent by 2050.

  • Increased frequency of intense rains—a 20 percent increase by 2050.
  • Sea level rise of 30–50 cm by 2080.
  • Increased intensity of the strongest hurricanes.

Caption: An ariel view of the western part of the island of Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands. To the foreground is the Caribbean Sea and the background is the North Sound. The image highlights how flat the island is and how vulnerable it is to rising sea levels.

Temperature projections for the Carribean region show increases of 0.48 to 1.06°C (2010–2039), 0.79 to 2.45°C (2040–2069), and 0.94 to 4.18°C (2070–2099).23 Projections of rainfall are still highly uncertain. However, ambient temperature increase is anticipated to result in intensification of the aridity and drought processes as a result of increased evapotranspiration. On average, the southern Caribbean is projected to experience increased dryness by 2050.

The key scientific questions on the effects of warming on tropical storms involve whether and how the frequency, geographic distribution, duration, and intensity will change over time. An 80-year buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) at 1 percent per year could lead to roughly a one-half category increase in potential hurricane intensity.22,24 However, hurricane frequency appears to have little likelihood of increasing under climate change scenarios.24 In addition, the AMO could play little role in modulating hurricane energy if the anthropogenic climate signal is nonlinear.25

The Caribbean thus experiences extended periods of wet and dry conditions lasting from years to decades. As such, analyses that rely on fixed period model outputs alone (e.g., for 2030 or 2050) may be misleading for planning. Thus, as noted by Kerry Emanuel (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)22 the region must prepare for the possibility that 1 and 2°C temperature increases superimposed on decadal scale variations physically changes the hurricanes that will occur near the end of the twenty-first century.

Critical Externally Driven Factors: Sea-Level Rise and Ocean Acidification

The Caribbean region experienced an average sea-level rise of about 10 centimeters over the twentieth century. Satellite data over the past 15 years show a global sea-level rise that is twice the rate observed over the past century, even as the rate of atmospheric warming has slowed. This measure is not uniform over the region, since some islands (Barbados) are experiencing geologic uplift, and all have varied coastal composition and bathymetry. A global sea-level rise of one meter is projected for the end of the century.26 For a one-meter rise, Antigua and St. Kitts are estimated to have potential adaptation costs of 32 percent and 27 percent of GDP, respectively.27 It should be noted that sediment availability and wetland evolution in these estimates are highly uncertain.

In the past 200 years, oceans have absorbed approximately one-third to one-half of the anthropogenic CO2, resulting in a 30 percent increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions. This “ocean acidification” reduces the ability of living organisms to create calcium carbonate-based shells and skeletons, increasing the “erosivity” of existing reefs.28 Projections of current acidification could result in reductions of 14 to 30 percent in calcification rates of corals by 2050.29 Notwithstanding ocean thermal limits, several studies acknowledge that atmospheric CO2 concentrations must be maintained at significantly below double the pre-industrial levels if the present benefits of coral reefs are to be maintained.30

Water Resources

Most Caribbean island states possess limited water resources, relying on single sources of supply such as groundwater, rainwater, reservoirs, and surface flows.31 From 1970 to 1998 fresh water resources per capita for the Caribbean were 2,574 m3, compared with 19,333 m3 in the Indian Ocean islands and 149,505 m3 in the South Pacific.2

Climate variability and change affects Caribbean water resources primarily through:

  • Intense rainfall over short periods resulting in high runoff with little recharge of groundwater aquifers and lower quality surface waters.

  • Long dry periods with high temperatures increasing irrigation demands, saline intrusion, soil degradation, and health impacts.
  • Supply augmentation during drought relies on utilizing limited groundwater reserves, truck-borne distribution, and even barging to smaller islands.

On coral islands, groundwater lenses are being affected by salinity intrusions even at inland sites through overpumping and excess evapotranspiration.32 The situation is compounded on islands such as Barbados where recharge is confined mainly to the three wettest months of the year (August, September, October), with only 15 to 30 percent of annual rainfall reaching the aquifer.33 At present, only a few Caribbean countries (Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago) have national water resource management plans.31 Reducing transport losses can provide significant savings in some cases, such as for Trinidad and Tobago, where leakage losses are greater than 50 percent.

Seasonal rainfall on smaller islands is critical to clean water supplies (given storage limitations) as well as for crop scheduling, yet few detailed impacts studies on agriculture have been conducted.34 Agriculture, primarily sugar and bananas, employs approximately 30 percent of the Caribbean labor force with direct contributions ranging from 10 percent to 35 percent of the GDP.35 These crops are significantly affected by changes in the height of the water table, soil salinization, and high wind systems.4 Only a few deep-rooted and salt-tolerant species, such as mango (Mangifera indica) and coconut (Cocos nucifera), tend to withstand water deficits and passage of these systems.

Climate-induced risks to the region's food security and foreign exchange earnings from agriculture are significant through water-supply impacts alone. In general, imports to meet food consumption needs are extremely high (e.g., Jamaica at 50 percent). This has not always been so. For the region, the net agricultural trade went from +$2.9 billion in 1988 to −$2.2 billion in 2004,36 with islands such as Trinidad and Tobago, a net exporter of food in the 1970s, becoming a net importer.

Near-Shore and Marine Ecosystems: Coral Reefs

Little is known about the long-term effects of climate variability and change in the Caribbean Sea and in turn on fisheries population viability within its larger marine ecosystems.37 Coral reefs are the most conspicuous coastal ecosystems in the Caribbean, with the second longest barrier reef in the world located off the coast of Belize. In 2000, Caribbean reefs alone provided annual net benefits from fisheries, dive tourism, and shoreline protection services of $3–4.5 billion,38 not including indirect benefits such as the stabilization of coastlines. The small-scale fishing sector is growing as a source of seasonal employment and subsistence (Figure 3).

Caption: Figure 3: Small-scale fishing in the southern Caribbean.

Estimates indicate that only 25 percent of Caribbean reefs are in good health.39 Stresses that cause or exacerbate coral health impacts include unusually high ocean temperatures, high levels of ultraviolet light, disease, abnormal salinity, and high turbidity and sedimentation from runoff and industrial waste.30,40 In the early 1980s, the combined reduction of herbivorous fishes and the die-off of the black sea urchin, Diadema antillarum, which feeds on algae growing over corals, are believed to have had negative impacts on reefs in many areas of the Caribbean. Low salinity and hypoxic conditions from runoff and waste disposal trigger mass mortalities of fish, along with reductions in sea-grass area.41 These impacts point to complex interspecies interactions and coupled habitat complexes that have extensive effects on reef building. There are also signs that Caribbean fish stocks are suffering from the phenomenon known as “fishing down the food web,” in which longer-lived, predatory fish become more scarce, and stocks become dominated by shorter-lived, plankton-eating species, signaling further long-term ecosystem risks.1 While climate–biota relationships are difficult to predict, reef fish are clearly shown to benefit from proximity to protected areas.42

In the summer of 2005, central Caribbean reef habitats and coral species were affected by widespread and severe bleaching (Figure 4). The common factor was water temperature, approximately 1–2°C above the seasonal maxima down to at least 30 meters depth.43 Coastal sea temperatures are expected to warm 1.2–2.2°C over the next century, with indications that bleaching incidents could become part of the annual cycle of events by 2025 to 2050.44 If corals can adapt to 1–1.5°C, mass bleaching events may not begin to recur at harmful intervals until the latter half of the century.45 Against the background of ecosystem degradation and human pressures, the capacity of reefs to cope may be irreversibly compromised at even lower temperature thresholds.40 Thus, a fixed bleaching temperature threshold for management of 1 to 2°C above the present average sea temperature needs to be reevaluated.

Caption: Figure 4: Bleached corals (Montastrea ann.) North Bellairs Fringing Reef, Barbados October 2005.

Cross-Cutting Sector: Tourism

Tourism, the single largest contributor to GDP in many Caribbean countries, accounts for up to 83 percent of GDP in Antigua and Barbuda, 50 percent in the Bahamas, and 46 percent in St. Lucia. Diving alone generates about $200 million annually, attracting 57 percent of the world's scuba divers.46

Of particular concerns are (1) the tourism infrastructure (ports, coastal highways, hotels, water supply, and beaches) at risk from inundation or erosion due to sea-level rise and wave action, and (2) tourism's dependence on pristine environments, including internationally acceptable water quality levels. Tourism is a high-impact industry, with land-use, waste-disposal, water, and energy demands. The extent of tourism sector demands for water, which, per capita, can be several times that of the resident population on Barbados, were clearly exposed during the drought of 2009–2010 (D. Farrell, Director, Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology, personal communication).

The most tourism-driven islands promote year-round cultural and sporting events, attracting visitors with strong preferences for large, full-service hotels and human-made attractions.46 Continuous corridors of development now occupy practically all of the prime coastal lands, such as on the north coast of Jamaica and the west and south coasts of Barbados. The combined pressures from inland built environments, sea-level rise, and coastal erosion have given rise to the term “coastal squeeze.” Few of the most intensively developed resorts in the Caribbean have beaches broader than about 30 meters at high tide (Figure 5).48 For a 0.5-meter sea-level rise, tourism income is predicted to decline by 62 percent on Barbados and by 34 percent on Bonaire.27 Major interventions will be required to manage visitor density by developing smaller-scale specialty alternatives.

Caption: Figure 5: Basseterre, St. Kitts, a town highly vulnerable to storm surge and sea level rise.

The Caribbean is the most tourism-dependent region in the world, and the industry and its attendant demands are growing rapidly.49 However, Caribbean tourism still constitutes less than 5 percent of global tourism. This further illustrates the regional economic sensitivity to even small changes in specific external markets, including the development of alternative tourism attractions in those and other markets.

Additional Globalization Pressures: Commodities and Insurance

Several islands now face declining preferential markets for bananas and sugar. Many islands (e.g., Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Martinique, and St. Kitts) have been restructuring away from agriculture in spite of increasing food imports, with arable land rapidly being lost to urbanization. Preferential secure markets traditionally provided an average of 25 percent addition to the value of exports. Erosion of this preference makes economies further subject to variations in annual tourism visits and expenditures, including travel affected by extraregional shocks such as the “9/11” event in the United States. Estimates indicate that the prices for rice and sugar could rise in a warmer world.50 Some sugar-producing island states, such as Barbados, are maintaining a minimum foreign exchange buffer by investing in specialized products such as local rums.

A fundamental concern with many economic climate impact studies lies in the assumption that no other influences on the macro-economy occur over the period analyzed.51 For example, during the early and mid 1990s there were no major catastrophes in the Caribbean, yet by the late 1990s insurance premiums more than doubled.52 This increase resulted from the so-called reinsurance “crisis” of 1993–1994 (after Hurricane Andrew in Florida and the Northridge earthquake), when primary insurers in the region imposed a 2 percent deductible clause. Base property rates on insured value for eastern Caribbean states compared with Florida, post-Hurricane Andrew, were at least 50 percent higher. In such circumstances, policyholders deliberately began to underinsure or not insure at all. Thus, the portion of catastrophic insurance risk held within the Caribbean region is only about 15–20 percent. Given the increased likelihood of climate extremes, it is not surprising to surmise that “large 40 year soft loans for major infrastructure may de facto be no more than 8–10 year loans, reducing the time in which effective risk protection strategies can be pursued.”53

On the Limits of Present Climate Change Scenarios in the Caribbean Context

The World Bank estimates that the potential economic impact of climate change on the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) countries would average about 5.6 percent of GDP (low scenario) to more than 34 percent of GDP (high scenario), with 66 percent of the population to be affected by 2080.54,55 For the CARICOM tourism sector, estimates of economic impacts from climate change through 2020 show that if infrastructure retrofitting occurs, the potential losses would be one-fifth of that without retrofit, clearly illustrating the benefits of anticipatory adaptation.56 As acknowledged by the authors of these studies, the estimates are based on limited data and assumptions and hence provide only a rough sense of the potential economic impact. How changes in the base state of the climate system alter the drivers of extremes and seasonal to decadal and longer variations is not considered.

The use of scenario-based approaches to climate risk management has been widely recommended as a necessary complement to traditional simulation and optimization studies. However, most impact assessments employ a small number of scenarios with limited usability at the island scale. These constraints illustrate the need for adopting management measures that are robust to uncertainty—that is, that are themselves adaptable from event to event without reliance on the need for precise projections of future conditions. Integrated water resources and coastal zone management, for example, are based around the concept of flexibility, using measures that are robust to changing conditions.57 Integrated approaches should not be limited to processes of system control but should reflect adaptation as a strategy for learning in place.

For the Caribbean, adaptation options will narrow unless mechanisms for managing in ways that provide buffers for system uncertainty (e.g., national parks and reserves, watershed protection) are in place before thresholds are reached.

Caption: A colorful alley in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, is turned into a river because of heavy rains.

Managing in the Changing Climate: Developing Adaptive Capacity in the Caribbean

The awareness that social and economic co-benefits will arise from developing climate adaptive capacity is still at an early stage in the Caribbean. A major barrier is that adaptation to climate change is not yet a high priority for both the public and leadership. There are, however, promising signs. Several islands have begun to consider adaptation strategies, such as desalination to offset current and projected water shortages. Early emphases on “hard” shore protection measures are giving way to awareness of the need for a mixed portfolio of structural and nonstructural responses, indicating an increasing recognition of the role of coastal ecosystems in providing natural defenses. Vulnerability studies show that many approaches require significant proportions of island GDPs and entail higher order impacts and consequences. Comprehensive protection may be beyond the financial means of most small island states.23

Caribbean small island developing states have articulated National Climate Change Adaptation Policies and Implementation Plans utilizing processes similar to the UN Framework Convention guidance for preparation of National Adaptation Programs of Action. Many regional programs are now linking these plans to their resource and risk management policies. The plans include:

  1. Caribbean Environment Programmei

  2. International Coral Reef Action Network Project1
  3. Integrating Watershed and Coastal Area Management in Small Island Developing Statesiii
  4. Caribbean Blue Flag Programmeiv
  5. Caribbean Global Water Partnershipv
  6. Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanismvi
  7. Caribbean Conservation Associationvii
  8. Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF)viii
  9. Caribbean Emergency Disaster Management (previously “Response”) Agencyix

Of particular note is the Carribean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF), the world's first index-based parametric insurance mechanism. It is a new (2007) partnership among 16 Caribbean countries and the World Bank with support from several countries, and will be tested over the coming years. Other innovative planning processes can be identified across the region, but their lessons are diffused in only a few instances. For example, the Town and Country Planning Act 1992 of St. Lucia was modeled on the Barbados Town and Country Development Planning Act of 1972, and makes available land for natural reserves, national parks, and public open spaces.

The World Bank initiated its adaptation efforts with the CPACC (Caribbean Planning for Adaptation to Climate Change) project in 1997, which focused on building regional monitoring capacity for sea-level rise.27 Following CPACC, the Canadian Climate Change Development Fund supported the Adaptation to Climate Change in the Caribbean Project, creating a protocol for embedding climate risk information into environmental impacts statements and supporting consultations for establishing the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (5Cs). The 5Cs is now fully functional and coordinates funding and provides guidance to regional impacts assessment and adaptation efforts. These efforts continued through the Mainstreaming Adaptation to Climate Change (MACC) program developed to conduct and mainstream vulnerability and capacity assessments into national and local planning. To facilitate within-country networks and to develop capacity for conducting assessments, a master's degree program in natural resources, with a specialization in climate policy and impacts assessment, was established at the University of the West Indies, Barbados, in 2003. To date, there are more than 50 graduates from the program placed in the water, tourism, agriculture, and other sectors around the region. Critical capacity in regional climate modeling has also been developed at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica.

These projects can be considered stage 1 and stage 2 adaptation activities, paving the way for the Special Pilot on Adaptation to Climate Change (SPACC) that isbeing implemented in prototype on Bequia, Dominica, and St. Lucia. This project is a stage 3 adaptation activity that builds on MACC to support targeted adaptation measures. As in other regions, there is a multiplicity of governmental agencies with responsibility for the environment. The resulting lack of congruence between the goals of nation building and the sustainable use of natural resources remains the biggest hurdle to attaining the goals of sustainable development among countries in the region.58 The absence of cross-agency institutional mechanisms to coordinate policies and programs often results in limited capacity for linking national development planning, project cycle management, collaborative management, and conflict resolution.8,9 A valuable step to facilitate such mechanisms is the regional strategic plan for adaptation recently adopted by CARICOM Heads of States.59 Mechanisms to be supported by the strategy include:

  • Development of interagency cultures and professionals to assess climate impacts and evaluate adaptation practices

  • Investment in local food and fruit production and processing to support tourism
  • Development of alternative energy resources (solar, wave, and wind)
  • Coordination of regional data collection, analyses, and information-sharing mechanisms, including early warning systems
  • Developing integrated approaches with provisions for environmental and conservation objectives

Common to most countries is the need for comprehensive ecosystem assessment and species inventory to inform decisionmaking on habitat protection under climate change.58,60 For example, of the 197 fish stocks under the jurisdiction of the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council, the status of 175 (88 percent), as of 2007, was unknown or undefined.1 At the time of this writing, the implementation plan to support the regional strategy is under development.


The largest losses of life in the Caribbean over the last 50 years have been due to freshwater-induced floods, mudslides, and landslides, notwithstanding the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Demographic patterns are changing significantly with increases in population and tourists, and an increasing concentration of residents in areas that are high risk, with attendant demands on resources.61 This article has sought to demonstrate that:

  • Normal” or present conditions in the Caribbean are critical conditions

  • Thresholds can be defined for water resources, coral bleaching, and infrastructure strength, but these must be placed within social, economic, and environmental contexts to determine actual tipping points
  • Rapid socioeconomic and environmental changes will occur at the same time as climate changes and co-evolve in nonlinear ways, increasing the potential for surprises

Given the CO2 already in the climate system and natural variability on several time scales, greenhouse gas mitigation alone will not be enough to nullify regional climatic risks. The categorization of global climate risks into “safe/unsafe” changes or thresholds (1 to 2°C) does not serve the needs of the region. Even smaller changes will overwhelm existing critical thresholds. The experience since 1995 indicates that transient responses of the climate system will be very significant for Caribbean environments.

As is widely recognized, identifying the need and types of adaptation or optimal governance structures does not automatically translate into actions on the ground without catalysts for coordination, leadership, and public engagement. Project-based initiatives such as the CPACC and MACC, conducted in partnership with regional organizations such as the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology and the University of the West Indies, have contributed to “mainstreaming” activities by providing guidance and capacity on:5,62

  • Understanding local and regional decision processes and networks and identifying entry points for embedding climate risk information in practice

  • Determining specific information characteristics (variables, lead times, etc.) required by the principal user communities in at-risk locations
  • Assessing the spatial distribution of risk (e.g., concentration of development) and the magnitude and frequency of events likely to occur
  • Identifying the needs for cross-sectoral approaches that bridge the energy–water, agriculture–tourism, and other nexuses
  • Working with regional organizations (such as the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology) on standards for data collection and loss estimation

Building on the foundation provided by these activities, five countries—Jamaica, Saint Lucia, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Dominica, and Haiti—are preparing to participate in the pilot phase of the Climate Investment Funds Pilot Program for Climate Resilience (PPCR).63 The PPCR Climate Investment Funds are a unique pair of financing instruments designed to support low-carbon and climate-resilient development through scaled-up financing channeled through the World Bank and other regional financing mechanisms such as the InterAmerican Development Bank. In addition, the Caribbean Regional Climate Outlook Forum was reestablished in June 2010 to serve as a forum for assessing and communicating early warning information across climate time scales in the region.

These activities meet proof-of-concept requirements but do not yet represent wholesale regional acceptance of adaptation as a planning priority. Coordinated approaches to management and robust data remain unavailable to undertake thorough analyses of the multiple threats to water resources, agriculture, ecosystems, and tourism and to link these more formally to decisionmaking processes for efficient technology adoption and disaster preparedness. Thus, the implications of climate change, and of climate extremes, have not been fully considered in the region. To this end, there is a need to more effectively link present adjustment to longer-term adaptation strategies with an understanding of how the actions are evaluated and serving to guarantee individual and social welfare across these time frames.64,65 The regional strategy is a clear step in that direction. Implementation goals should include efforts to (1) raise the present low-priority status given to sustaining ecological services, (2) understand the impacts of long-term land use, and urban planning, and (3) develop and show the benefits of multi-way information exchanges that facilitate shared awareness and coordinated action.

To achieve these goals requires clarification of present and potential risks, enabling affected people and informed action at national and local scales. Without such inputs, current response and reconstruction policies are likely to perpetuate the very disasters the region seeks to avoid.


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2. UNEP, Caribbean Environment Outlook (Nairobi: UNEP, 1999).

3. N. Myers et al., “Biodiversity Hotspots for Conservation Priorities,” Nature 403 (2000): 853–858.

4. L. Briguglio, “Small Island Developing States and Their Economic Vulnerabilities,” World Development 23 (1995): 1615–1632.

5. L. Nurse et al., “Small Island States. In Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” in Third Assessment Report of the IPCC: Working Group II, ed. J. McCarthy et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 842–975.

6. R. Pulwarty and N. Hutchinson, Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment: A Guidance Manual (Caribbean Community Climate Change Center 2009).

7. C. Benson, “Macro-Economic Concepts of Vulnerability: Dynamics, Complexity and Public Policy,” in Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People, ed. G. Bankoff, G. Frerkes, and T. Hilhorst (London, UK: Earthscan, 1994), 159–173.

8. CDERA, “Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency Report,” 2005, (accessed 16 August 2010).

9. UNEP, Caribbean Environment Outlook (Nairobi: UNEP, 2006).

10. ECLAC, Economic Survey of Latin American and the Caribbean (Santiago, Chile: UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2009).

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14. A. Giannini, Y. Kushnir, and M. Cane, “Interannual Variability of Caribbean Rainfall, ENSO and the Atlantic Ocean,” Journal of Climate 13 (2000): 297–311.

15. A. Chen and M. Taylor, “Investigating the Link Between Early Season Caribbean Rainfall and the El Niño1 Year,” International Journal of Climatology 22 (2002): 87–106.

16. J. Charlery, L. Nurse, and K. Whitehall, “Exploring the Relationship Between the North Atlantic Oscillation and Rainfall Patterns in Barbados,” International Journal of Climatology 26 (2006): 819–827.

17. S. Goldenberg, C. Landsea, A. Mesta-Nunez, and W. Gray, “The Recent Increase in Atlantic Hurricane Activity: Causes and Implications,” Science 293 (2001): 474–479.

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Dr. Roger S. Pulwarty is the Chief, Climate and Societal Interactions Division and the director of the National Integrated Drought Information System at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He is a convening lead author on the forthcoming IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Working Group II.

Dr. Leonard A. Nurse is a senior lecturer in the Center for Resources Management and Environmental Studies at the University of the West Indies, Barbados, and former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Barbados. He is a convening lead author on the forthcoming IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Working Group II.

Dr. Ulric O. Trotz is the senior advisor to the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center. He is formerly the director, Science & Technology Division, Commonwealth Secretariat, and dean, Faculty of Natural Sciences, University of Guyana. He was a review editor on the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report Working Group II.

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