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Dominica: climate change or act of God?

Monday, August 31, 2015

There will always be a debate about what is natural versus what is anthropogenic. Tropical Storm Erika caused havoc and death in Dominica. It was not an exceptionally strong weather system. It was by no means a dreaded category 5 hurricane but it still resulted in nearly 30 deaths and devastation to infrastructure. 

How much of this disaster is due to climate change? It is not a question that can be answered with accuracy. Hurricanes and tropical storms have always plagued the Caribbean. The word hurricane comes from the Taino hurakán. Hurakán is a creator deity but also the God of wind, storm and fire. The Taino made no distinction between a hurricane and a tropical storm. To them both would be frightening and life-threatening. 

Some of Dominica’s devastation was caused by human development. The Douglas Charles airport at Melville Hall suffered severe damage. From Amerindian time there is archeological evidence that a river once ran where the airport now is. The river simply reclaimed its ancient course. In other areas unplanned construction may have led to mudslides. Severe weather exacerbates these land-planning flaws.

Scientists warn that extreme weather events, fuelled by greenhouse gasses (GHGs), will become more intense and frequent. Dominica’s devastation should be used as an indicator of what faces Caribbean Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in a climate disrupted world.

Just a day before Erika hit Dominica, scientists at NASA warned that melting icecaps, glaciers and an ocean that expands as it warms, has locked us in to a minimum three feet sea level rise, possibly much more. That is a radical departure from previous research that suggested that sea level rise could be contained to one-three feet maximum. NASA says that the sea level rise is unavoidable. Even if we stop emitting greenhouse gasses today, it cannot be contained.

That is a scary conclusion because there is nothing to indicate a willingness to cease expelling carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere. There is simply too much money to be made by the fossil fuel companies. And lets face it, 27 deaths in Dominica doesn’t make much of an impact in international boardrooms. 

I always like to think of saving the whales as a good example of how humans react to environmental crisis. In short, humans chose not to react. Whale hunting bans were only introduced after whales had been hunted to such an extent that is was uneconomical to harpoon and process them. There was little love for whales, the sea or Mother Earth involved in what made whale conservation possible. It all came down to short-term profitability and investor interests. It looks like this is being repeated with carbon emissions. 

At the end of November a new round of climate change talks takes place in Paris. It is called the COP21, which stands for Conference of Parties. It is an annual meeting of business, government, finance, UN, NGOs and civil society. T&T has already made some pledges towards reducing GHGs in what is called INDCs or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. 

The T&T pledge is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the public transportation sector by 30 per cent by 2030. Further pledges are to reduce GHG emissions from the power generation and industrial sectors by 15 per cent each. 

You can already see the problem: science tells us that even with a 100 per cent reduction today we still face a sea level rise that will cause change the coastal topography of our SIDS nation beyond recognition. Small sectorial reductions will not have the desired effect. What they do reflect is a lack of vision for T&T in a post fossil fuel world. A thought that is will be business as usual 30-40 years from now. 

Of course the problem for T&T is that there is too much money on the table. In fact, all our money comes out of the fossil fuel pot. We have been a fossil fuel producer for more than 160 years and like an old person, set in our ways, we seem unable to imagine a future without fossil fuels.

The world, however, is changing. Hawaii just committed itself to doing away with all fossil fuels for electricity production. By 2045 they plan to be 100 per cent renewable. Their partner in this effort is the US military. It has become concerned about the vulnerability of its bases’ electricity supply because most of Hawaii’s power plants are in coastal areas vulnerable to sea level rise, tsunamis and extreme weather. 

Saudi Arabia’s oil minister declared that his country might switch from being a crude oil exporter to being a solar energy exporter. Nearer to home Bonaire and Costa Rica are set to become 100 per cent renewable by 2020 and 2021 respectively. Government policy drives business and planning. T&T must pledge to become fossil fuel-free for electricity production by 2030. Fifteen or 30 per cent is not enough. Making that pledge is achievable.


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