Written by: Carolee Chanona
One percent. That’s the maximum threshold of global greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions that, collectively, Caribbean nations are responsible for. And yet, climate change is an existential threat to our way of life.
Burdened before with only technical jargons and displaced environmental debt, the survival of Small Island Developing States (SIDS)—of which the Caribbean geographically comprises ⅓ of—is directly dependent on a holistic climate-change agenda. Easily classed as a threat amplifier, climate change spares no corner of the globe immune from its devastating consequences: extreme weather events and natural disasters, food and water insecurity, economic disruption, plus social and migrational displacement. In a global climate crisis, it’s a race to resilience for the Caribbean.
Biodiversity: The bright, beautiful heart of Belize
Caribbean islands hold approximately 10,000 km of reef, 22,000 km2^ of mangrove, and about 33,000 km2 of seagrass beds. Uniquely, Belize being dually a part of the Caribbean community and geographically in Central America, we boast a mosaic of marine and coastal habitats within the Belize Barrier Reef—contributing 195 of the 625-mile stretch along the coast of Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and yes, Belize. With it, the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) is the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.
But sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, and oceans are acidifying.
Two of the main threats resulting from climate change—mass coral bleaching and coastal erosion—place our brilliant biodiversity at risk of disappearing. According to UNESCO, coral reefs in all 29 reef-containing World Heritage sites will cease to exist by the end of this century if we continue to emit greenhouse gases under our current business-as-usual scenario. Preserving Caribbean biodiversity is essential to the survival of the region’s marine ecosystem and nations themselves.
These rainforests of the sea protect coastal communities from flooding and erosion, sustain fishing and tourism businesses, and host a stunning array of marine life. With Belize’s GDP rooted in over 40% tourism while over 15,000 fishers depend on the ocean, it is a warranted cause for concern.
Can you imagine the Caribbean without beaches?
In 2010, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) predicted a one-meter sea level rise by 2100 now inevitable as a result of climate change and warmer temperature. With nearly 70 percent of the Caribbean population living on the coast, our options must be boldly climate-resilient and conservation-strong. If we don’t start now, imagining a Caribbean without its world-famous beaches is a very real possibility by 2050.
Political will and leadership are vital alongside investments in climate-resilient infrastructure, while nudging bigger players to emission reduction pledges.
The hard truth is that fossil fuels breed bigger disasters as our climate warms. Instead, we can learn from mistakes of developed nations without ever needing to make them ourselves. This is about our fresh air of progress versus a stale air of normalcy in developed nations.
In October 2017, Belize made history when “The People’s Law” enshrined an indefinite moratorium on offshore oil in Belize’s marine territory, including territorial seas and Exclusive Economic Zone. After seven years of an Oceana-led campaign, rallying public outcries to keep Belize’s waters oil-free culminated into sweet, sustainable victory: Belize became the world’s first country to reject all offshore oil.
More recently in November 2021, the Government of Belize announced an innovative debt-for-nature swap in support of Belize’s commitment to protect 30% of its ocean, strengthen governance frameworks for domestic and high sea fisheries, and establish a regulatory framework for coastal blue carbon projects. Representing the world’s largest debt restructuring for marine conservation to-date, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) announced the US$364 million Blue Bond, generating approximately US$4 million per year in support of marine protection and tripling Belize’s budget for ocean conservation programs over the next two decades.
Belize has proven itself a pioneer, and the potential for more beckons.
The cost for inaction is irrefutable: our way of life.
Now comes the hard part: working at the local level to make these promises a reality. Inaction will cost us our homes, our livelihoods, and our future, but there’s a number value attached to that too, taking into account increased hurricane damage, loss of tourism revenue, and infrastructure damage. For the Caribbean, the estimated annual cost of inaction could total $10.7 billion by 2025, $22 billion by 2050 and $46 billion by 2100, representing up to 22 percent of the region’s GDP (Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, 2012).
As the infinite cost of climate change peaks towards irreversible highs, advocacy is more important than ever: hold policy makers accountable to promises of a climate-resilient future, made as recent as COP26 in November 2021.
Like UN Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out in September 2021: the climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win.