The Bahamas is already experiencing the impacts of climate change and is approximately 30 years away from irreversible effects if holistic interventions are not undertaken, a University of The Bahamas (UB) climate change expert has warned. It is a reality that, if left unchecked, could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and other detrimental human impacts for a country that would literally be fighting to keep its head above water.
“In comparison to the rest of the Caribbean, we are heads and shoulders above other countries in terms of people and land at risk to sea level rise,” said UB’s Director of the Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Research (CCARR) Centre Dr. Adelle Thomas. “[The year] 2050 is not that far away.”
Dr. Thomas, a human environment geographer, made her remarks during a panel discussion on “National Emergency Management Perspectives and Options” at the recent 2021 Bahamas Business Outlook (BBO) webinar.
Dr. Thomas cautioned that The Bahamas’ current efforts to address climate change are far from sufficient.
“We are focusing mostly on our risks to extreme events, particularly hurricanes, and we are unfortunately not holistically addressing the many other risks of climate change,” she noted.
In 2016, a study by the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) revealed that climate change impacts could cost the Bahamian economy almost $500 million annually by 2025, and that flood prone areas in New Providence will expand by eight percent by 2050 due to increased rainfall caused by climate change.
The IDB report further warned that more than one-third of The Bahamas’ hotels and airports, and 90 percent of its ports, would be threatened by a one-metre sea level rise caused by climate change. Experts fear that in just over eight years, climate change impacts could end up costing The Bahamas between $240 million and $480 million annually.
Adding further context, Dr. Thomas contended that The Bahamas is only one 30-year mortgage facility away from the permanent effects of climate change.
“It is within the timeline of a 30-year mortgage being taken out today,” she said. “A family or a business could be investing in an area that may be flooded annually, while also being at risk to hurricanes. Insurance in these areas is likely to increase substantially before being discontinued. The value of properties and real estate in these areas is likely to decline. So, these are very real effects that we can expect to see in the years to come.”
According to Dr. Thomas, other international bodies like Moody’s Investors Service and the World Bank have already identified The Bahamas as one of the top four nations in the world that is most at risk to sea level rise. Projections show that up to 15 percent of The Bahamas’ annual gross domestic product (GDP) and 11 percent of the population will be at risk from sea level rise every year. And with those risks will come a myriad problems, Dr. Thomas asserted.
“Climate change risks for The Bahamas include much more than increased intensity of hurricanes,” Dr. Thomas explained. “They include the very sobering risks of sea level rise. We face salinization of water supplies that affects agriculture, changes to the ocean that affect fisheries. Our tourism industry is projected to decline due to changes in our attractiveness as well as changes to the global flow of travelers. Every sector will in some way be affected by climate change, beyond the threat of hurricanes.”
To prevent such crises, Dr. Thomas said there needs to be a significant investment in coastal protection measures. Global estimates show that up to several percent of the country’s annual GDP would need to be dedicated to coastal protection alone. But with the numerous amounts of towns and settlements spread throughout the Bahamian archipelago, the concern relates to the country’s capacity to provide comprehensive coastal protection against sea level rise. An answer in the negative then begs the question: does The Bahamas have the resources to rebuild each community that is devastated by a hurricane and also threatened by sea level rise and other climate risks?
“If not, then we must start to plan for a future where some areas of our islands will be uninhabitable,” said Dr. Thomas. “We need to address what that means, including the potential need to relocate communities and not continue to invest in areas that we will be unable to protect.”
Besides the potential need to relocate communities given the obvious risks associated with sea level rise, Dr. Thomas said what is needed going forward are evidence-based national climate change strategies that consider how each of the country’s sectors and settlements will be affected and how the nation should respond. Further, from a foreign direct investment (FDI) perspective, assessments of each development project to identify how they may affect The Bahamas’ vulnerability to climate-related shocks are also needed.
“We have quite a lot of work to do and it requires cooperation between government, the private sector and civil society,” said Dr. Thomas. “The very future of our islands is at risk. And unfortunately, our focus on hurricanes combined with short-term thinking and planning is inadequate to prepare us for the risks that we are facing. We need to plan and act for the future which will be much different than what we are currently accustomed to.”