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Climate security implications for the Caribbean

Published:Wednesday | March 11, 2015 | 3:00 AMOliver-Leighton Barrett

Climate change is a slow-moving stressor compounding vexing developmental challenges across Latin America and the Caribbean and testing governments to the limits of their capacities. For example, the mega-city, Sao Paolo (South America's largest and most populous city), implemented water rationing last year during the worst drought in more than 20 years. The 'drought of the century', as well as the state-imposed rationing, persists even today.

Far closer to Jamaica's geographic coordinates, lower-than-expected rains interrupted planting cycles across Central America late last year, ruining harvests and causing food prices to skyrocket by as much as 40 per cent. At around the same time that desperate farmers in Nicaragua walked across their parched farms, Jamaica was also being injured by a persistent drought that threatened not only water availability, but also food security.

Climate change is not an over-the-horizon hazard; it's already here, and Caribbean nations cannot afford to be slow out of the gates in preparing vulnerable populations for the forecasts environmental shocks. The Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nation's International Panel on Climate Change confirmed observations across the Caribbean that temperatures and sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events are occurring more frequently.

Because of these changes, the sizable populations living along coastlines, high dependence on subsistence farming, and our nations' relatively weak response mechanisms, the Caribbean is very vulnerable to climate-change impacts - both the rapid and slow onset varieties.

Climate-change impacts can cause damage to already degraded critical infrastructures (e.g., coastal installations and other critical transport infrastructure), which many nations depend on to facilitate key industry activities (i.e. agriculture and tourism). In extremely fragile countries like Haiti, the possibility of increased migration into neighbouring states (e.g., Dominican Republic) is not far-fetched, even if the lower end "it won't be so bad" climate-change scenarios play out.

 

SECURITY IMPLICATIONS

 

Caribbean military forces working in support of national civil authorities and organisations like the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, can expect increasing demand for search-and-rescue and recovery operations in the wake of intense storms. Militaries will not only have to build their respective capacities (e.g., equipment procurement, training and exercises) to assist distressed communities, but might also be compelled to work with and through regional defence organisations like the Inter-American Defence Board to pool resources, share best practices, and hone specialities if they are to be effective.

Longer dry periods especially pose a distinct challenge for governments, which will have to invest more heavily in water-management systems and infrastructure improvements to keep the most critical resource flowing. If they don't, civil and even military public servants may find themselves handing out emergency food packages to the most affected citizens.

Also, governments already struggling to meet the expectations of a growing population will have to reconfigure their developmental and crisis response calculi to factor in climate-change impacts or face very angry and distressed citizens and perhaps even pressure for political reordering.

National leadership should also keep in mind that even if only the tamest of climate change forecasts play out, their security and defence organisations can expect to play an increasingly non-traditional, but critical role as both crisis responder and peacekeeper.

So, while the focus of climate-change resilience is justifiably on mitigation and adaptation activities, we shouldn't underestimate how both slow and rapid onset climate stressors (i.e., hurricanes and extended droughts) might exasperate a vexing set of human insecurity conditions that already plague most islands.

Governments across the basin must not only focus on the better-known impacts of the slow-moving emergency, but should also have an eye on shoring up critical infrastructure, early warning and evacuation systems.

Last but not least, the state security apparatus - oft times responders of last resort - must also view climate change as a strategic imperative and should start training and equipping for responding to communities increasingly in distress due to shifting weather patterns.

- Lieutenant Commander Oliver-Leighton Barrett, US Navy (ret), is senior research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security. This article is a redacted version of a broader essay addressing climate-security challenges for the entire Latin America and Caribbean first published on The Center for Climate and Security website December 2014. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.