Endless research has been done to affirm the causal relationship between mankind and climate change, more specifically global warming. Irrefutable evidence now exists that confirms a significant deviation in global phenomenon from expected annular cycles. Rigorous debate is ongoing regarding the mitigation of climate change. As a result of these debates, there was the birth of the Kyoto Protocol: mankind’s initiative to reduce global warming on a global scale. Despite the promising research being conducted and with so much statistical evidence being presented, a large population, both globally and nationally, refuse to believe in global warming and the urgency of the situation.
Most surprising were the results from Gallup Surveys conducted in 2010 compared to a similar Survey of 2008. There was an approximate ten percent decrease in American respondents who believed that climate change was a serious threat to them and their family, falling from sixty-three percent to fifty-three percent within that two-year period (Gallup 1). Rob Nixon in his book Slow Violence, Gender, and the Environmentalism of the Poor, coined the term “slow violence” to illustrate the passive nature of climate change and the ignorance that exists by those who are not directly impacted by it (Nixon 1).
Perhaps the lack of burning buildings, explosions, and bloodied streets removes the sense of urgency in combating climate change by the first world population. Certainly different types of atrocities carry an unequal sense of threat. The fact is that climate change is real, and global warming partnered with other ecological atrocities will eventually contribute to mankind’s demise on an expedited scale. However, the effects of global warming are already apparent. The debate of climate change must no longer be argued by raw data or trend-lines, but by observable and apparent evidence elsewhere, such as in the Caribbean region.
The Caribbean, because of its isolated nature, is not usually considered as a focal point of global warming. However, an analysis of the region’s observable physical features and their changes over a few decades of “slow violence” will provide concrete evidence of the effects of climate change and global warming. Apparently, a centralized theme is developing within this region where time and time again, the innocent pays for the guilty. Slow violence is nonexistent in this region; it was rapidly replaced by its much more obvious and devastating counterpart: fast violence.
An analysis of the region reveals exactly what is at stake for the Caribbean due to this fast violence. Inhabited by approximately 40 million people, the West Indies is illustrious for not only its culture and practices, but most importantly its physical features, including but not limited to, rich volcanic soil, sandy coastlines, and complete limestone islands. The region has also been admired for its biodiversity with a fragile network that exists between terrestrial, coastal, and aquatic ecosystems that thrive on the resources provided by their habitats. Imbalance within any of these ecosystems leads to deleterious effects in any of the others, for example, temperature.
Temperature alone has a direct impact on biological mechanisms (and by extension, the ecosystem they are a part of) by its influence on kinetic energy of particles alone. For example, the Maxwell-Boltzmann energy distribution curve predicts the rate of molecular interactions such as simple diffusion, membrane transport, and enzyme-catalyzed reactions. Alterations in ambient temperature lead to fluctuations in metabolic rates, which has direct implications on organismal function within its ecosystem.
To some extent, organisms are able to acclimatize to change in temperature through homeostatic mechanisms. However, for a large population of species, alterations in climate change parameters such as temperature affects their fundamental biological operations. This has been observed in research that focused primarily on key stone predators within ecosystems. “Animal metabolism is temperature-dependent, and consequently ecological processes such as predator-prey interactions are likely to be altered as warming occurs.” (Hoegh-Guldberg and Bruno 108)
These predator-prey interactions comprise the vast majority of relationships that exist within Caribbean food chains. It is obvious how disruptions within one food chain can affect the larger ecosystem that it belongs to, often leading to the demise of that particular ecosystem. “On a local scale, communities may undergo gradual changes in composition as species with affinities for warmer temperatures become more abundant. However, temperature changes may have more immediate effects on local populations by altering the interaction between a species and its competitors, mutualists, predators, prey, or pathogens” (Sanford 1). Anthropogenic climate change may cause changes that are too severe to be reversed. This may result in complete extinction events with disastrous consequences especially for the region.
With all the biological terminology and with all the statistical data presented hitherto, one may ponder, “So what?” A more appropriate question is “So what, for who?” The out-of-sight out-of-mind mentality ends here. An example of the delicate balance between organisms in their ecosystem and the temperature is observed with coral reefs and the food chains they host. The living part of coral reefs is comprised of coral polyps. These coral polyps secrete the calcium carbonate structures that we see as the elaborate coral reef. A special type of algae known as zooxanthellae have formed a mutualistic relationship with these polyps. “These zooxanthellae are vital to the existence of corals as they provide up to 95% of the energy requirements of the coral hosts” (Hoegh-Guldberg and Bruno 55). However, these algae are extremely temperature sensitive, and variations in temperature outside of their optimal range prove detrimental to their survival. Temperature exchange occurs at the surface of the ocean, thus causing expedited warming. The surface is coincidentally where coral reefs are located, and continuation of this warming will result inan increased frequency of coral bleaching events leading to increased coral mortality. This is disastrous for many species that rely on the reefs for survival.
Many fish species use the rigid structures of coral reefs as protection, and some even consume the plant species that use coral reef structures for growth. A delicate food chain has been established within these “tropical rainforests of the ocean” and are threatened when the integrity of a reef is compromised. In the book Disappearing Destinations: Climate Change and Future Challenges for Coastal Tourism, Andrew Jones and Michael Phillips describe some possibilities of total coral reef destruction backed by statistical evidence.
Among the possibilities cited was a “complete loss of visual amenity” for tourists (Jones and Phillips 240). Without much surprise, aesthetic appeal is a vital ‘pull factor’ for tourism sectors throughout the Caribbean region, often described as “the most tourism-dependent region of the world”, with tourism sectors accounting for a staggering fourteen percent of the region’s total GDP. According to NOAA, the Caribbean region has already lost fifty percent of its coral, largely due to the rise in average sea temperature alone. This fifty percent statistic is unacceptable, especially since these structures take thousands of years to grow. Besides serving as a host for various ecosystems, coral reefs also serve as natural physical barriers. Their presence moderates the effects of tidal sea level variationswhile also dissipating energy of wave action. These reefs serve to protect the delicate coastline that exists a few feet behind them. As delicate as sandy coasts are, coastal erosion is potentially a major problem with regard to climate change.
In fact, it is already a major issue in most Caribbean countries, notably in the dual nation island of Hispaniola. Research suggests that the degradation of coral reefs around the nation of the Dominican Republic is causing an expedited case of coastal retreat (Wielgus, Cooper and Torres 1). The effects of coastal erosion within the region are extremely alarming, considering that coasts are as much of a renewable resource as oil. Coastal erosion from reef erosion is certainly a double threat, since coasts are already under major threat from sea level rise, a direct impact of rising temperatures. “As the ocean warms, the density decreases and thus even at constant mass the volume of the ocean increases, leading to sea level rise” (Verheyen 31). According to NASA’s ongoing satellite surveys, global sea levels have risen by approximately 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) within the last century. So what? Well, while not of much concern for the majority of the American population, the issue is problematic for the majority of West Indian inhabitants who live and rely on their relationship with the coast.
According to a recent report by the Quantification and Magnitude of Losses and Damages Resulting from the Impacts of Climate Change, “A one-meter rise in sea level would displace an estimated 110,000 people throughout the region.” With a region dependent largely on tourism for income generating, beaches are a critical asset. Unfortunately, many of these beaches are already completely inundated with damage to infrastructure built within proximity to the coast. With this same one-meter rise in sea level, agriculture and communication networks including roads are under great threat.
In the Bahamas especially, a total net loss of fourteen percent of road infrastructure is possible within the near future. The report makes no mention of the mass displacement of species that rely on coastal regions to function as their habitat. This displacement is itself a positive outlook on the result of the inundated coastal regions. Complete mass extinction of certain species is a more realistic outcome in the near future. For example, many turtle species rely on beaches and marshes to facilitate breeding. The economic impact associated with repairs and relocation is disproportionately large, and could be completely detrimental to the fragile economy of the region.
In recent interviews with Dr. Ulric Trotz, Deputy Director and Science Advisor of the CCCCC (Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre), “In 50 years, if the [models] are correct, the entire [Caribbean] landscape will be changed.” “Our beaches will have disappeared, our coastal areas eroded, our infrastructure degraded. It would certainly wreak havoc on the way we live.” This is the price that these fragile nations pay due to the greed of neighboring first world mass polluters. This is the unforgivable sin, the geopolitical equivalent of getting in trouble for something you did not do.
The old homage of the innocent paying for the guilty still stands. Regardless of all the changes to the environment; regardless of how merciless we have treated the very planet that is here to facilitate our existence, there is still time. There are still solutions that may help to retard the rate of climate change, solutions such as those made recently in a public statement by Ruenna Haynes on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Haynes stated that certain “provisions of support” would be provided “to developing [Caribbean] countries for the implementation of nationally appropriate mitigation action plans…” (Haynes 3). On the contrary, mitigation is no longer an option. A global effort must be made to tackle climate change at the source. It is time we become less reactive and more proactive in tackling the solution.
Regardless of our choices, the damage has already been done. Statistical data, graphs, charts, and trend-lines prove to be worthless; the observable evidence is already there. The specter isn’t a specter anymore; slow violence has violently been selectively replaced by fast violence. The mass displacements of inhabitants, the disappearing destinations, and the much colder winters will eventually be more accurately interpreted as threatening in a few years to come. By then, it may be too late.