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President Obama’s Visit to Jamaica: Doubling Down on Climate Security Collaboration

Published:Thursday | April 9, 2015 | 4:00 AMOliver-Leighton Barrett

President Obama is making a short but historic trip to Kingston, Jamaica, on the eve of the Summit of the Americas to be held in Panama (April 10-11). During his visit, Obama will meet with the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) for discussions on regional security and trade. This presents an opportunity for leaders to discuss how the American-Caribbean strategic cooperation framework can be broadened to incorporate non-traditional security matters, such as climate change.

 

Importance of US-Caribbean security Cooperation

 

A number of Caribbean islands, such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, are major nodes in regional illicit networks, which facilitate the movement of illegal goods destined for markets throughout North America and Europe. It is this shared security challenge that has fostered sustained cooperation between the United States and Caribbean states in recent years, including through the 'Caribbean Basin Security Initiative,' and will likely remain an active area of cooperation for years to come. Another incentive for US cooperation and leadership in the region is China's strident alliance building with Caribbean countries, which presents risks to US interests. In this context, the US should explore more ways of enhancing cooperation with its Caribbean partners. More comprehensively addressing the impacts of climate change on the capacities of partner nations would be a step in the right direction.

 

Economic vulnerability

 

Caribbean islands are disproportionately vulnerable to intensifying climate change effects, not only due to their small size and location, but also due to economic linkages to environmental conditions. Key industry sectors such as tourism and agriculture rely heavily upon the seas, beaches and ports. This is why climate change effects like sea level rise, beach erosion, and port degradation are causing serious concern across the region.

 

Military vulnerability

 

Other effects such as longer drought days and episodic flooding across vulnerable areas can have consequential impacts on security, especially when national disaster response and security apparatuses are underprepared. After severe storms, Caribbean military and Coast Guard organisations are often called upon to provide relief and 'law and order' services in support of overwhelmed civilian response organisations. This capability is likely to erode as these storms become more frequent and severe. On top of an increasing workload, the Caribbean operational and training facilities that launch these relief efforts are highly vulnerable to sea level rise. A 2014 joint assessment from US Southern Command noted that "sea level rise and more intense storms leads to destructive inundation and erosion of coastal [military] facilities". The report also shared that rising oceans and more frequent storms can have an "impact on facilities' clean water supplies" and can lead to "increasing maintenance costs". This degradation in military readiness will also adversely affect the American led counter-trafficking fight in the region since Caribbean security coastal facilities often serve as launching pads for maritime patrols and interdiction operations.

 

Recommendations

 

If the United States is serious about addressing the security-related risks of climate change, President Obama could offer to double down on current regional cooperative security efforts. This could include:

- Expanding assistance for addressing climate change-induced degradation to militaries' operational readiness (that is, facilities and installations).

- More support for response units in the form of capital improvement projects and training evolutions that would help to mitigate the worst damage to security infrastructure that is critical to maritime interdiction operations.

- More frequent environmental security and disaster-related training exercises designed specifically for mid-to-senior level military personnel.

- Facilitating action on the aforementioned USSOUTHCOM joint assessment, which recommended "subregional working groups (for example, coastal facilities working group)" to "leverage the advanced capabilities and knowledge of participating member countries," as well as working groups that address environmental security (specifically, threats to installations, operations and force readiness).

Without a doubt, the United States should continue to play a strong supporting role in helping Caribbean states to become better prepared for an increase in crisis response needs, and for maintaining maritime interdiction readiness.

In recent months, President Obama has been enthusiastically supportive of addressing the security implications of a changing climate. Hopefully, he will carry this enthusiasm with him to Kingston.

- Lieutenant Commander Oliver-Leighton Barrett is a United States Navy (retired) officer and senior research fellow. This article was written for The Center for Climate and Security.