Students at the Sixth Form of Government Secondary School in Trinidad and Tobago take part in activities during Caribbean Climate Change Day of Action in October 2009. Photo Credit: 350.org
The rapid spread of COVID-19 has forced many states to turn their attention away from climate change in order to address the pandemic’s effects. However, Caribbean states have not been afforded this luxury, as their governments and populations have had to simultaneously battle existential crises on multiple fronts. Contending with the pandemic and climate change has placed Caribbean states in a precarious situation, where both crises, in combination, present risks for instability in their political, economic, and social institutions. As the situation for Caribbean states worsens, instability becomes more likely, therefore requiring whole-of-government approaches and assistance from their regional and international partners.
Climate change, although not a direct cause of instability, amplifies its potential. It is routinely regarded as a “threat multiplier” by scholars and practitioners, including the United Nations and previous U.S. administrations.[i] Since the pandemic’s effects in Caribbean states resemble climate change, such as a contraction in tourism revenue and decreases in agricultural production, it is worthwhile to think of COVID-19 in a similar manner. These threat multipliers can aggravate economic, political, and societal stressors such as poverty, political instability, and social tensions.[ii]
Prior to the pandemic, the Latin America and the Caribbean region frequently faced natural disasters and extreme weather events. Earlier this year, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs published a report that listed Latin America and the Caribbean as the second most disaster prone region in the world, falling only behind Asia. The report stated that from 2000 to 2019, the region experienced 548 floods, 330 storms – including 23 Category 5 hurricanes – 75 earthquakes, 74 droughts, 66 landslides, 24 wildfires, and 38 volcanic events.[iii]
The effects of these climate-related events have caused considerable and consistent damage to Latin American and Caribbean states and the livelihoods of the region’s populations, with hurricanes and tropical storms alone resulting in more than US$39 billion in damages from 2000 to 2019.[iv]
While more frequent and intense natural disasters, attributable to climate change, have caused devastation in Caribbean states, the economic effects of the pandemic have worsened the situation. The Economic Commission of Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has estimated that due to the COVID-19, the GDP of the Caribbean (excluding Guyana) is expected to drop 9.9%, reversing a decade’s worth of growth.[v]
Many Caribbean states’ economies are dependent on tourism. Consequently, even as Caribbean states aim to re-open their borders to accommodate tourists, there are additional risks, given that the hurricane season does not officially end until late November. Further, as Caribbean states are concerned about protecting themselves against multiple waves of the pandemic, at least until a vaccine is widely available to the region’s populations, lower tourist inflows and infrequency in tourism revenue will continue. Quarantine restrictions in countries like the United States for returning tourists are also likely to deter travel to the Caribbean.
Separately, climate change has decreased agricultural production in the Caribbean, which remains a significant sector of employment and source of food. Frequent droughts and rising temperatures can lead to water shortages, reduced production and productivity, and food price instability. These events and the subsequent decline of agricultural production can increase competition for food among local populations and escalate impoverished conditions, which might lead to internal migration from rural areas to cities, growing inequality between urban and rural citizens, and even social unrest and violence.
Both declining agricultural production and tourism are already leading to massive job loss, which is fostering frustration and economic hardship, which can make it more likely for people to seek alternative forms of income through illegal and illicit means. Historically, the Caribbean has faced challenges in addressing narco-trafficking, and the dramatic loss of revenue will make it more difficult for governments to allocate scarce financial resources toward countering criminal activities.
As a result, Caribbean states have made addressing the effects of the pandemic and climate change an immediate priority as they use regional and international forums to raise awareness for the challenges they face. While they go about these actions, Caribbean states will need to ensure that at the state level, they are using a whole-of-government approach given the complexity of these issues. Multiple sectors are affected by these crises, meaning that intra- and inter-governmental cooperation and communication will be integral to developing strategies that effectively tackle these dilemmas.
The Caribbean will therefore need to act in a unified and coordinated manner, which includes sharing resources, ideas, and using its combined political will to leverage aid from international financial institutions. Although the pandemic is expected to subside in coming years, its effects will last much longer, while the effects of climate change are expected to get worse. Regional solutions will consequently be necessary, especially during and after natural disasters and extreme weather events.
While Caribbean states are individually and collectively attempting to address the effects of climate change and the pandemic, their efforts alone are not sufficient. If richer states, such as those within the G-20, have found it difficult to address these crises, it is unlikely the Caribbean will be able to do so on its own. It is worth noting that both crises are not of the Caribbean states’ doing, yet they have paid the price of their effects on their economies and populations’ livelihoods.
What the international community must realize, yet has been slow to act upon, is that the instability that can result from climate change and the pandemic’s effects is not bounded by territorial lines. There are spillover effects, such as migration and increases in transnational crime, both of which make them regional and international issues. Therefore, if the international community is unwilling to use its resources and political will to aid the small, developing states of the Caribbean, they should consider that any refusal is likely to affect regional and international peace and security.
[i] Cullen Hendrix, “Climate Change as an unconventional security risk,” War on the Rocks, October 23, 2020. https://warontherocks.com/2020/10/climate-change-as-an-unconventional-security-risk/
[ii] U.S. Department of Defense, “Quadrennial Defense Review 2014,” March 4, 2014, p. 8. https://archive.defense.gov/pubs/2014_quadrennial_defense_review.pdf
[iii] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Natural Disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean,” March 2020, p. 2. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/20191203-ocha-desastres_naturales.pdf
[iv] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Natural Disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean,” March 2020, p. 5. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/20191203-ocha-desastres_naturales.pdf
[v] Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Economic Survey of Latin America and the Caribbean, 2020, p. 30. https://repositorio.cepal.org/bitstream/handle/11362/46071/85/S2000370_en.pdf