COVID-19 has upended life as we knew it in The Bahamas. However, as we deal with the widespread impacts of the pandemic, it is critical that we do so in a climate resilient fashion. This global crisis underscores many characteristics of our country that make us not only vulnerable to the pandemic, but also to the widespread effects of climate change. Reliance on tourism, weak food security, high levels of economic inequality and vulnerability to climate events have all led to challenges in addressing COVID-19. These are also factors that make us one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. While the pandemic is a relatively unexpected crisis, we are well aware of the existential risks that climate change presents and should make every effort to prepare for them. As we rebuild our country, all of our efforts should be reviewed with a climate resiliency lens to determine if they will support our fight against the climate crisis.
The challenges presented by the pandemic are a glimpse of the existential threats that climate change presents for our country. We must learn from this experience and implement responses that address the vulnerabilities that the pandemic has highlighted. Firstly, COVID-19 has resulted in an almost complete halt of global tourism and has underscored that we are economically crippled by our over-reliance on this single industry. While the near complete cessation of air and sea travel for leisure is unprecedented, there is significant evidence that climate change will result in substantial alterations to global tourism flows. The Bahamas’ attractiveness as a destination is expected to decline and international tourism is also expected to decrease, with more and more tourists opting for domestic vacations that are closer to home. Therefore, as we recover from the pandemic, we should not expect that our past experiences with rising tourist numbers will continue in the long term. We must diversify our tourism product, decrease cruise ship tourism that harms our natural defenses against climate impacts, and pursue more responsible forms of tourism. We should also further our efforts to encourage domestic tourism and reduce reliance on large numbers of international guests.
Secondly, the pandemic has highlighted that we need to drastically increase our domestic food production. Climate change will result in additional stressors to the global supply of food. Changes to precipitation and temperature are expected to result in food shortages on a global scale, meaning that we must improve our own capacities to build food security. Our responses should incorporate the latest evidence-based recommendations on climate resilient agriculture, including specific crops that are tolerant to environmental change, particular methods such as small-scale irrigation and also backyard farming measures. Thirdly, COVID-19 has shown the environmental benefits from global ‘stay at home’ measures. Greenhouse gas emissions have dropped dramatically and there has been a marked decrease in levels of atmospheric pollution. This is the type of transformational change needed to limit global warming to levels that make life on small islands viable and in line with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Paris Agreement. However, as countries attempt to restart their economies, there is a risk of ‘emission rebounding’ – increasing greenhouse gas emissions rapidly through encouraging economic activity without regard to climate change. This is certainly a risk in The Bahamas, as we address the need to diversify the economy and bring in new revenue streams.
However, for the long-term survival of the country and other small islands around the world, it is critical that we maintain a focus on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Stockpiling oil, encouraging oil drilling and failing to shift to renewable forms of energy increase our vulnerability to climate change and will result in our islands becoming uninhabitable in the long term. While diversification of the economy is critical, we must ensure that we do not support industries or projects that are not climate resilient. Lastly, the pandemic has shown that we must take evidence-based approaches to responding to crises and that national expertise is critical. Our coronavirus response was informed by international best practices that were understood and translated to the Bahamian context by a cadre of local experts. Climate change threatens all aspects of life in The Bahamas, and is much more extensive than increasing intensity of hurricanes. All sectors, communities and ecosystems will be affected by climate change, meaning that we must have holistic and integrated responses.
Responding to the climate crisis means taking a similar evidence-based approach and building our national climate change expertise. We must develop our capacity and local professionals in preparing for and responding to all climate risks. The Climate Change Adaptation and Resiliency Research Centre at University of The Bahamas should be developed to serve as a key partner in evidence-based approaches to building climate resiliency and working with government, the private sector and NGOs. Prime Minister the Most Hon. Dr. Hubert A. Minnis has repeatedly articulated that we must be prepared for a very different Bahamas in the aftermath of this crisis. As we rebuild after the pandemic, we must not return to business as usual, but rather learn from our experiences and transform into a more climate resilient society, well-equipped to address the inevitable challenges of climate change.