In July 2022, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned the world about the growing set of challenges climate change poses to the Caribbean—describing the region as “ground zero” for the climate emergency. Despite having a minuscule carbon footprint compared to large industrialized nations, Caribbean countries—like most small island developing states (SIDS)—are disproportionately impacted by climate change. These climate change impacts include the increasing intensity of extreme weather events like tropical cyclones, droughts, floods, and landslides. These extreme events represent major humanitarian and economic challenges for the Caribbean. To respond to these challenges, the Caribbean Community (Caricom) has led regional efforts to prepare for growing climactic dangers and has built an impressive network of regional institutions. However, many Caribbean countries still remain far behind the curve. Thus, national governments, regional institutions, and the region’s partners must build upon existing advancements to ensure the wide adoption of resilience measures and protection of all communities.
Tropical cyclones or hurricanes historically represent the most dramatic and devastating extreme weather phenomenon in the region. Hurricanes have caused 18,000 deaths and over $163 billion in damages since 1950. Worryingly, scientists like Global Americans Working Group Member Kevin Reed, have highlighted how climate change makes hurricanes more powerful and destructive than in previous decades. In 2017, the losses and damages associated with Category 5 Hurricane Maria cost the island nation of Dominica approximately 226 percent of the country’s 2016 GDP. Unfortunately, as the impacts of climate change worsen, what happened to Dominica is likely to happen again. Emerging data suggest that the percentage of storms that reach Categories 4 or 5 will continue to increase. Such predictions have led the Inter-American Development Bank to estimate that by 2050 annual losses related to extreme weather events will cost the region $22 billion—a figure representing 10 percent of the current regional economy.
To ensure their continued economic and social survival, Caribbean countries have no option but to take effective action to build resilience. In recent years, several governments have intensified their efforts to anticipate, absorb, and recover from the effects of extreme weather events. To date, most Caribbean countries have designed national strategies to bolster resilience. International and regional organizations and partners have also increased their cooperation with these nations to improve emergency preparedness and response. However—as in much of the developing world—these efforts remain insufficient and highly unequal. Luckily, the region has built an important network of institutions to implement international mechanisms and set a common regional policy that serves countries and territories to respond to the extreme impacts of climate change.
To anticipate, accommodate, and recover from natural disasters, CARICOM and its member states have established institutions such as the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center (CCCCC), and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). In addition, the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) and the Central America and Dominican Republic Center for Coordination and Disaster Prevention (CEPREDENAC, per its Spanish acronym) are advancing climate resilience throughout the Caribbean basin. For their part, international organizations—such as the United Nations—as well as international partners—like the United States and the European Union—are also playing an important role in helping these organizations by providing resources to fund projects aimed at enhancing climate resilience across the region. Despite these initiatives and the significant progress made at the regional level, there are still multiple challenges to be addressed. According to the 2023 Punta del Este Ministerial Declaration—signed at the VIII Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americans and the Caribbean (RP23)—current investment in disaster risk reduction is insufficient to address existing needs. The Declaration also warned of significant challenges associated with the implantation, monitoring, and reporting of the targets set by the Sendai Framework.
Despite these efforts and various multilateral agreements urging developed countries to cut global greenhouse emissions and provide financial and logistical assistance to SIDS, the extent of the region’s challenges remain unclear at best and existential at worst. In addition, the lack of a supranational institution responsible for implementing climate regulation has left nation-states as the main actors responsible for taking climate action.
Given the Caribbean region’s diverse set of political, economic, and social realities, it is important to look at a variety of countries and contexts to identify best practices for resilience building. Understanding the challenges the governments of Haiti, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Dominica, and Barbados face in building climate resilience allows for tailored policy recommendations as well as identifiable regional trends. These countries and territories not only represent some of the most climate-affected in the world but also have different levels of economic development, corruption, government effectiveness, as well as political leadership. These are important factors that better position nations to build resilience than those that lack these governance-related characteristics.
On the national level, governments should also look to promote resilience building and disaster risk reduction measures as central components in infrastructure-project planning, implementation, operation, and maintenance. In doing so, they must use a multidisciplinary approach to disaster risk governance and management that includes hard and soft sciences. Both perspectives are indispensable to a comprehensive understanding of the needs and concerns of diverse, impacted communities. At the regional level, Caricom must enhance capacity building through the existing network of regional institutions such as the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center (CCCCC), the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), and the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH).
On the extra-regional level, multilateral institutions and the region’s partners must coordinate their efforts to build resilience subject to the needs as defined by the recipient countries. Resilience-boosting efforts, whether from organizations like the UN or partners like the U.S., must aim to strengthen the capacities of the local and national institutions responsible for disaster risk reduction and promote the transfer of information, knowledge, and technology on voluntary and mutually-agreed upon terms. Crucially, multilateral development banks need to expand concessional loads to upper-middle and high-income SIDS regardless of country-specific income classifications. In all collaborative cases, partners should implement frameworks with the understanding that the nature of the Caribbean’s climate challenge necessitates funding and timelines that recognize the dire threats therein.
With or without climate change, extreme weather events will exist and regrettably affect people in the Caribbean and worldwide. However, as global average temperatures warm, the Caribbean stands out as particularly vulnerable to the catastrophic, compounding effects of climate change in the form of extreme weather events. Contending with tropical cyclones, droughts, heat waves, and heavy rains require practical solutions which will invariably touch upon politically sensitive issues—ranging from questioning the rationale of the current international financial architecture, acknowledging the responsibility of high-emitting countries for warming temperatures, and tackling regional structural problems such as corruption and government mismanagement. Given this reality, there is a pressing need to strengthen international and regional mechanisms, as well as improve national and regional governance to bolster climate resilience.
For more information and recommendations, as well as an analysis of the impact of climate change on extreme weather events in the Caribbean, read Global Americans’ full report, “Extreme Weather Events and Resilience in the Caribbean.”
Jackson Mihm is an Associate Editor at Global Americans and the Project Lead for the organization’s High-Level Working Group on Climate Change in the Caribbean.
Alejandro Trenchi is a Research Assistant at Global Americans for the organization’s High-Level Working Group on Climate Change in the Caribbean.