Like everywhere else in the world, in 2023 the Caribbean experienced its fair share of triumphs and challenges, but as a region of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the ill effects of climate change are right at its doorstep.
Of the many stories the Global Voices Caribbean team covered this year, the lion's share of them have been linked in some way to this looming threat and the importance of climate justice to the region's survival. This is not to say that there were no concerns about crime and violence, political tension, or sadness over Caribbean icons who passed away over the last 12 months, just that the climate crisis was the issue that appeared most pressing to social media users, as well as journalists across the region.
Climate change challenges
Because Caribbean island nations typically have smaller populations and operate on a much lower scale when it comes to industrialisation, the region produces fewer carbon emissions than many Global North countries. Yet, they bear the brunt of the worst effects of climate change because of their geographical vulnerabilities.
The climate crisis has, therefore, become an existential threat to SIDS, manifesting in severe and multifaceted impacts, from rising sea levels that erode shorelines, threaten coastal communities, and exacerbate the risk of saltwater intrusion into freshwater sources, to uncomfortably hot temperatures and the disruption of ecosystems.
The growing frequency and intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes have also placed Caribbean countries in the crosshairs of the climate crisis, causing widespread damage to infrastructure, disrupting livelihoods, and amplifying the challenges of recovery.
Six years after Dominica suffered great devastation post-Hurricane Maria, for instance, the country is still attempting to build climate-resilient homes for its citizens, making its leaders even more resolute about advocating for proper Loss and Damage mechanisms to be put in place at the recently concluded COP28 conference.
Dominica has also been proactive in other areas, becoming the first country in the world to designate 800 square kilometres (300 square miles) of its waters as a sanctuary for sperm whales, an endangered species that can actually help fight climate change.
However, there were many instances this year in which climate progress felt like one step forward, two steps back. While environmentalist Allison Ifield, for instance, continued her fight to protect Belize's mangroves, Jamaicans found themselves having to fight for access to their own beaches. Plastic pollution on beaches was also reaching concerning levels, and there was much outcry about unsustainable development practices and the pollution of water sources on the island.
Meanwhile, Antigua and Barbuda’s Ramsar site continued to be threatened by a sandbar breach, which, if not rectified, can compromise the well-being of the lagoon’s ecosystems, as well as people's livelihoods. The breach occurred in 2017 after Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, hit the island.
How the climate crisis affects communities
This year, Global Voices published several stories that gave readers deeper insight into the many ways in which the heating of the planet has been having an impact on diverse communities, including women and their newborns, menstruating women, and other vulnerable groups like the visually impaired and Indigenous people, many of whom have been positioning themselves on the frontline of the battle for climate justice.
Effects over land and sea
Another serious effect that the climate crisis has been having on island nations is the disruption to agriculture due to changing precipitation patterns and more frequent droughts. In many small island economies, small-scale farming is a vital source of income and sustenance. As a result, nations like Guyana and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have been grappling with food production and finding ways to combat food insecurity. In Trinidad and Tobago, vetiver is being promoted as a reliable and eco-friendly solution to mitigate the effects of flooding, landslides, slope destabilisation and erosion.
Additionally, the warming of oceans has been compromising the vibrant marine ecosystems that form the backbone of many Caribbean economies, forcing island nations to pivot. Trinidad and Tobago, for example, has begun creating partnerships in order to help protect its coral reefs. Suriname, whose fisheries have been negatively impacted by climate change, is turning towards options like aquaculture, while Belize is very clear about the benefits of a blue economy, having been the first country in Central America — back in 1982 — to designate a Marine Protected Area (MPA) with the Half Moon Caye Natural Monument.
Jamaica was also centre stage this year as far as threats to the world's oceans were concerned since the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the UN agency with a mandate to organise and control the international seabed's mineral resources “for the benefit of humankind as a whole,” is headquartered in Kingston, where deliberations on deep-sea mining reached a critical stage.
The tentative hope of COP28
Even before the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28, got underway in the UAE, Caribbean leaders were being urged not to squander the opportunity to make the climate conference “transformative,” with more people becoming aware of the great potential of fossil fuel alternatives.
Even as some feared inaction at COP28 would deliver the death knell for vulnerable regions like the Caribbean, Small Islands Developing States did their part in advocating for both renewable energy initiatives and the need for ramped-up decarbonisation efforts.
In the end, the big wins were the long-awaited launch of the Loss and Damage Fund and the eventual recognition of the need to transition away from fossil fuels. However, with no firm obligation or timeframe of deliverables in which to achieve this, Caribbean nations are understandably cautious about their optimism. After all, mitigating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions to ensure not just sustainability but survival must be undertaken collectively in order to have any chance of achieving the Paris Agreement's objective to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.