‘Blue Planet’ versus ‘Red Planet’ – red alert for The Bahamas?

BBC News reported on September 25, 2019 that the United Nations (UN) panel signals red alert on “Blue Planet” owing to climate change. In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, as a small island destination The Bahamas needs to be more involved in the issue of climate change.

Do we need a Greta Thunberg in The Bahamas to take the issue of global warming seriously? Previous studies from University of Sydney, Australia, in 2018 have shown that tourism has expanded so rapidly that it now accounts for eight percent of the greenhouse gases we belch into the air. That is up to four times the previous estimates. What is more, tourism’s annual carbon footprint has grown rapidly and looks set to continue if a “business-as-usual scenario” remains. Hence, in this discussion, I reference the interesting report that was presented by Matt McGrath, the environment correspondent from Monaco, in the BBC News. The state of the environment will inevitably impact the tourism industry across the globe.

So, how bad is it?

The UN reported that “climate change and global warming are devastating our seas and frozen regions as never before”. Waters are rising, the ice is melting and species are moving habitat due to human activities. This is a fact and not “fake news”. The loss of permanently frozen lands threatens to unleash even more carbon, hastening the decline. Hence the question arises, have we passed the tipping point? There is some guarded hope that the worst impacts can be avoided with deep and immediate cuts to carbon emissions. Is the tourism industry doing enough to slow down this impact?

With the rapid changes that are taking place on Earth today, the “Blue Planet” as we have always pictured it is in serious danger of becoming a “Red Planet”. Many studies have been presented to world leaders on the certainty that the global ocean has now warmed without pause since 1970 and the waters have soaked up more than 90 percent of the extra heat generated by humans over the past decades. What is alarming is that the rate at which it has taken up this heat has doubled since 1993.

In the distant past, the seas were rising mainly due to thermal expansion (the way the volume of water expands when heated). Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported that rising water levels are now being driven principally by the melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica. It was reported that the amount of ice that melted between 2007 and 2016 tripled compared to the 10 years previously. At this phase (high carbon emissions scenario), the projections are that they will lose 80 percent of their ice by 2100.

This will have huge consequences for millions of people over the decades to come. This is worrying as it will have widespread consequences for low-lying coasts where almost 700 million people live. And The Bahamas is certainly one of them. Hence, the news highlighted a painful question faced by low-lying places the world over – which should be saved and which should be abandoned as the waters rise? The report says clearly that some island states are likely to become uninhabitable beyond 2100 and that relocating people away from threatened communities is worth considering “if safe alternative localities are available”. Small developing states will certainly face the brunt of the high or very high risks from sea level rise.

So, how does it impact tourism?

The impact of climate change on global economies makes it imperative that the Caribbean region in general, and The Bahamas in particular, begin to recognize threats on the tourism industry as well as the standard of life. While climate change impacts the development of all nations notwithstanding size of economy or location, small island nations are more vulnerable than any other group of nations worldwide to the ravaging impact of climate change. With increased average temperatures, droughts and flooding due to frequent and severe weather events and rising sea levels, small island nations will be increasingly challenged with vector and waterborne diseases like dengue, diarrheal diseases and malaria, all of which threaten the health of visitors and residents alike.

As previously reported in the May 7, 2018 issue of New Scientist, “Tourism is growing as people get richer, and unsurprisingly, the U.S. is the biggest source of tourism emissions, due to both its own citizens travelling elsewhere and people from elsewhere visiting the U.S.” Further, the report added, “Other nations are catching up fast, with the strongest growth seen in emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil, as wealthy citizens seek to travel to exotic destinations.” The Bahamas is certainly one of these exotic destinations.

In addition, small islands like The Bahamas are disproportionately affected – we have been seeing declines in our coral reef and we have been experiencing sea level rise which result in coastal erosion. Of course, we now see the more intense hurricanes. All of these are very significant for small islands like The Bahamas.

Transformational change is needed in the country on the whole and the tourism industry in particular. As a tourism nation, we need to be more conscious of all the climate change reports as we are so dependent on our marine costal resources – economically, socially and environmentally – as they affect all areas of life. Increased acidity and warmer temperatures will destroy the beautiful coral reefs which are not only critical for promoting tourism but more importantly for our fishing industry and for breaking the waves coming on shore (which is important not just during hurricanes but in general when we have high tides).

Are we too small a nation to do anything about climate change? Certainly not, although we alone cannot fix the issue. Nonetheless, in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, it is evident that we have not been serious about adaptation measures although we are consistently listed as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Large scale developments under the guise of “tourism”, is not the way forward for a fragile nation like The Bahamas. The impact of intense hurricanes in islands with mega developments will quite often result in a total economic decline as can be seen in Grand Bahama. These hurricanes are here to stay (and their intensity and frequency are getting worse). Are we setting up all these outer islands to fail economically in the long term?

The adoption of international policies to address these issues will also create problems for a country like The Bahamas – in part because the tourism industry itself is a big source of greenhouse gases. Research has shown that if global tourism was a country, it would be the fifth largest polluter – after the U.S., China, the European Union and Russia. Hence, creating more awareness of climate change issues is one of the most responsible things we can do in terms of sustainable tourism. We are one of the countries that will be most affected and people need to accept that.

Many past reports have indicated that some fresh water marshes in The Bahamas have already become brackish, which may be attributed to rising sea levels. It is also known that wellfields on Andros and Grand Bahama have been badly affected by storm surges in the past decade. The recent Hurricane Dorian has further negatively impacted the environment on Abaco and Grand Bahama. Early assessments by the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) indicate that national parks on both Abaco and Grand Bahama have been affected severely. Hence, we have to ensure that our coastal wetlands are preserved and that buildings along the coast are sufficiently inland. We have to be proactive and adapt to the inevitable aspects of climate change and plan to mitigate the worst impacts, knowing that most Bahamians live on or near the coast, especially in the outer islands.

The Caribbean as a region, and The Bahamas as a country, is one of several tourism hot spots around the world that are especially vulnerable to climate change. We do not have the luxury of time. The next generation will face the brunt of environmental destruction due to our apathy to change our ways of dealing with this global crisis. Regional stakeholders need to analyze aviation tourism, cruise tourism and climate data, and look at ways to reduce the region’s carbon footprint. The rise in travel cost and deterioration of conditions in the region will result in a decrease in demand. However, this could be offset by higher value or high yield visitors who will be more attracted to and spend more on environmentally and responsible tourism destinations and services.

So, what are the other impacts?

In addition, as indicated in the report, “A world with severely increased levels of warm water will in turn give rise to big increases in nasty and dangerous weather events, such as surges from tropical cyclones.” This is evident in the recent intensity of storms and cyclones across the Atlantic and Pacific. Hurricane Dorian, which flattened Abaco and East Grand Bahama, was unprecedented. “Extreme sea level events that are historically rare in the past, are projected to occur frequently (at least once per year) at many locations by 2050,” the study says. The most recent Super Typhoon Hagibis that hammered Tokyo in Japan on October 12, 2019, shows that these extreme weather conditions are the new norm. How do we build resilience for the tourism industry and for the survival of mankind in general in years to come? It is not a question of “if” we will get hit anymore, but it’s more of “when” will we get hit by these catastrophic hurricanes.

Other impacts of climate change across the globe include vast flood damage (that could increase by two or three orders of magnitude); the acidification of the oceans (the increased levels of CO2 are threatening corals to such an extent that even at 1.5C of warming, some 90 percent will disappear); species of fish will move as ocean temperatures rise and seafood safety could be compromised because humans could be exposed to increased levels of mercury and persistent organic pollutants in marine plants and animals; our ability to generate electricity will be impaired as warming melts the glaciers, altering the availability of water for hydropower. Further, there may also be significant fall in agricultural output, more infrastructure damage resulting in the loss of insurance coverage, and more health issues like the spread of malaria and dengue fever. All of these have the potential to affect travel to the region.

So, what next?

This is indeed a key question. The long-term impact will very much depend on what we do immediately to limit emissions, although we may have already passed the tipping point. Irreversible damage has already been done and the sea level rise by several metres within centuries is not in our control anymore. The BBC report further highlighted that, “Even in a scenario where we can reduce greenhouse gases, there are still future sea level rise that people will have to plan for.” The Bahamas is one of the most low-lying countries in the world. There is no escape for us from the brunt of climate change.

Tourism is the cornerstone of our economy and so it is incumbent upon us to ensure that we protect the environment not just for our current use but for future generations. We need to build climate change resilience to strengthen the tourism resilience of The Bahamas. The assumption that things are always better for the next generation is not accurate anymore. Climate change could bring about a reversal of development. Hence, the University of The Bahamas is in the process of conceptualizing a Climate Resilience Research Centre to address the human dimensions of climate change. Such human dimensions focus on how climate change will affect human systems – such as communities, businesses and sectors – and how these systems may best prepare for and respond to impacts. This approach includes the perspectives of a wide range of disciplines including geography, sociology, psychology, economics, anthropology, law and political science.

As a nation, it is the responsibility of all stakeholders to play some part in this important issue of climate change. Do we need more global climate protests by school children and teenagers, who are the next generation to be impacted by the “non-actions” of current leaders across the world before we get our act right? Before Hurricane Dorian hit The Bahamas, there were multiple labor disputes on many issues leading to applications for strike votes, strikes and demonstrations. As a nation that will be severely impacted by climate change, I am surprised that we have not seen any similar mass climate change protest or demonstration in this country. Are we conscious of the gravity of the climate change issues we face? Do we need to put the nation on red alert before we react?

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