Dispatch from the womb of storms: Cop27 and the reality of loss and damage in the Caribbean

In the Caribbean, the issue of climate change is so complex that it wears many faces; some obvious, others unsuspecting. On islands like Puerto Rico or Haiti, the evidence of loss and damages from an increase in frequency and potency of storm activities abound. There need be no debate about what these countries are due under the Paris Agreement and Cop26’s Billion dollar climate finance commitments. However, in other countries like Jamaica, which are equally as vulnerable but have a streak of luck in escaping storms, something portentous is happening. 

The history of this island nation reveals a likely hurricane per year. Over the nation’s 61 years of independence, Jamaica, though cradled in the womb of storms, has been hit by only a handful of major hurricanes, the actual number ranging from 6-10, depending on your sources. The contention in the hurricane reports uncovers something very crucial about the narrative of storms in the Caribbean. Some sources, like the island’s National Library Service, not only included tropical storms in their history, but also hurricanes that did not make direct landfall. 

Although this was the case, reports of real-time impacts are provided for each entry. This is crucial in the Caribbean for two main reasons.

 It means that a storm doesn’t have to hit in order to create loss and damage, but perhaps even more importantly, when a hurricane is projected to hit the Caribbean region, all islands are flagged as risks in international media.

Countries like Jamaica that rely heavily on their tourism sector, and the economy in general, often take a big hit, whether the hurricane does or not. 

The threat of hurricanes looms high every storm season in the Caribbean, but those that make landfall in Jamaica are few for now. Still, it’s not hard to imagine what even the weakest of storms could do to our tiny island. The outer bands of one tropical storm Ian, which later went on to become a hurricane in Florida, devastated several of Jamaica’s roads, as well as rural and coastal communities in its passing, accruing over 800 million dollars in damage, according to the Prime Minister. Jamaica, like other Caribbean islands, though lucky enough to escape some hurricanes, simply does not possess the kind of resilience and ability to recover that developed countries do. Neither are they free of the effects of climate change.

In fact, there is a noticeable increase in droughts, a precedent set by the devastating droughts of 2014-2015. There are also occasional freak surges of increased rainfall and winds that create disastrous floods. The historic city of Port Maria, in the parish of St Mary, earlier this year experienced a flood of this kind. Totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in property wreckage, and crop and cattle loss, these isolated, unsuspecting weather events can be crippling for neglected coastal or rural communities that are home to many farmers. 

“Well the truth is, everything in Caribbean life almost has an outdoor existence. So climate becomes so much a part of our life but it also drives a big part of our economy; agriculture, tourism. When you have any kind of storm event it disrupts life totally. Climate is linked so strongly to our ability to develop and achieve the goals we aim for as a region, that it has to be studied.”

Professor Taylor is also the co-director of the Climate studies group in Jamaica, which is a cohort of researchers from different disciplines that pool their expertise to produce insightful reports about climate change in the Caribbean.  “There is an uptick for sure in intense storms. How much of that is directly related to climate change is part of the science. When you look into our history, we have a direct landfall of about six or so, but we have been influenced by several. We know climate change is definitely impacting the intensity of the storms, but we think it’s also affecting the tract where storms move along. The speed at which they move, these are clear things that climate change impacts.” 

The main failure of previous COPs like Glasgow’s 26, lies primarily in the designation of people’s lives as mere numbers. The 1 billion dollar climate funding agreement is an ideal example of lives being seen as captured by sums and dollar signs. In actuality, a proper assessment of the funds required may reveal it to be closer to a trillion. If the delegates at these conferences are to have a true sense of what it is like to be disturbed, to lose everything and what it takes to recover for people living in our region; documentation and research from our perspectives are absolutely necessary.

The people who struggle must also be thought of as humans; with lives they have been building for years, only to have their progress or loved ones suddenly drowned by the floodwaters. They must be seen this way, instead of as integers in 7-figure commitments.  

Still, the balance, and the conversation between developed and developing countries require constant assessment and reworking. As developing countries we have a role to play in reducing emissions, adapting, mitigating, and building resilience to climate change. Finding the balance between taking responsibility as developing nations and holding developed nations responsible can be tricky. But countries like Jamaica, which have not only met their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) but updated them, have in fact held to their commitments and continue to be proactive with initiatives at COP27. The ‘Early Warning for All’ agenda is one such initiative, for which United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres unveiled an execution plan at COP27. With the aim of making early warning available to everyone within five years, the initiative is of particular importance to the Caribbean region.

The Caribbean Meteorology Organisation’s Coordinator Director Arlene Laing was present for the session and believes it could genuinely help the region. “On World Meteorological day, March 23, 2022, the UN Secretary General made a call for early warning for all, in five years. With the idea that this is one way of adapting to climate change. Ensuring that people are aware of extreme weather events so that they can better protect themselves, their property and their livelihoods,” said Laing. This idea of scaling up warning systems is one of many initiatives being developed with the World Meteorological Organisation as well as other stakeholders, at what is being called the center of excellence. 

According to Ms. Laing, this session was hosted by the UN Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), featuring officials from islands like the Maldives who face similar climate change impacts.

“The focus was on, how do we get quickly to developing early warning systems if none existed or strengthen the ones that do? So that we can meet this call for early warning for all within five years. That’s a very short time. We talked about how to measure success at the end of five years and it’s been outlined in the executive plan.”

Jamaica’s early warning system would qualify as one that requires scaling up. At the moment, only online users are privy to updates by our Met and other emergency services. This chain of communication could be expanded to reach everyone, including those without the internet, by adding more points of contact. But a simple expansion isn’t enough, “The need for strengthening linkages between institutions, updating processes and sharing data is also essential because no single institution will be able to meet these challenges.”

As we consider further the implications of COP27 and its many breakout sessions like these that spelled crucial changes for developing countries, one thing is certain. We can glean that mitigating climate change will take the collective effort of not just all institutions globally but also developing and developed nations. The issue is complex, the impacts are nuanced; we need the best of all human resources to pull through and play their role.  

Although loss and damage are on the agenda and the fund is currently being organized thanks to the hard work of SIDS delegates and negotiators, it could favor certain countries and exclude others like Jamaica which may not be directly hit as often, but is still largely affected. Proactive mitigation methods like upscaling early warning communications, which are also often in dire need of funding, could be an additional way of balancing those scales and helping to build resilience for SIDS.  

This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership Virtual Fellowship, organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and supported by the Commonwealth Foundation.

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