Despite ongoing global consultation at the Climate and Biodiversity Conference of Parties, the natural world is drifting to its extinction. According to the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, human activities have already profoundly altered 75 per cent of the terrestrial ecosystems, 50 per cent of water streams, and 40 per cent of the marine environment, with one-third of the carbon emissions since the industrial revolution already lying in and acidifying the ocean.
In the Caribbean, the impact of climate change is felt by frequent hurricanes, floods, droughts, extreme heat waves, coral reefs bleaching, sea-level rise, food and freshwater shortages, and health hazards. Yet, these extremes are already increasing in frequency and severity due to our inability as humans to protect our biodiversity, heal our ocean, and close the “emissions gap” by keeping through the path of the 1.5-degree warming limit.
International Day for Biological Diversity on May 22, World Environment Day on June 5 and World Oceans Day on June 8 are observed to inform on the importance to preserve our common natural heritage. These days coincide with the beginning of the rainy season in Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the Caribbean. With the upcoming heavy precipitations also comes the painful memory of devastations caused by past hurricanes and torrential rainfalls. In 1963, Hurricane Flora, known as one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes, killed 7,200 people during its 17-day lifespan. In Trinidad and Tobago, 6,000 houses were damaged, 75 per cent of the forest trees were blown down, and half of the coconut and cocoa trees were decimated, breaking the biodiversity balance of the islands. Trinidad and Tobago experienced, during that event, their largest mudslide, which flowed several hundred metres from Mount Dillon onto near Castara in the north of Tobago. Marine species paid their death toll because of the rough undercurrents and dramatic changes in water habitat, temperature and salinity that stemmed from Hurricane Flora. Scientists forecast such disasters will happen again and again, sooner rather than later. The true question remains whether we are prepared enough to face them.
For Caribbean people and governments, resilience comes at a price. Why repair the hole in your house’s roof during a dry season? Well, because the hurricane season will come. Indeed, procrastination increases vulnerabilities and risks becoming a financial burden, especially when weather extremes threaten to wipe out Caribbean infrastructures.
We must learn our lessons from previous experiences, to be better prepared for and mitigate future catastrophes.
We must engage in developing capacities in environmental sciences in Trinidad and Tobago and across the Caribbean. We must foster collaboration through an interdisciplinary climate change research network. Breaking the isolation of Caribbean environmental specialists, through networking, ensures more impact vis-à-vis the end-users. It also takes science up into policy discussions for evidence-based decision-making on climate and biodiversity.
Because data and information on environmental risks are lacking, it is essential to systematically monitor observations and trends in ocean changes, extreme weather phenomena, and biodiversity erosion. These can be achieved via an annual Caribbean Resilience Assessment and Outlook publication, which represents an asset in the development of resilience strategies and policies in the islands. In the same vein, local communities and indigenous peoples, guardians of 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, have much to teach us about nature observation and conservation—like the indigenous villagers of the Kanuku mountain in Guyana who help sustain wildlife in their area.
Reconciling humanity and the living and building resilient communities require environmental education. But there is still much to do since UNESCO’s “Learning for the Planet” report, published in 2021. It shows that only one in five countries teaches about biodiversity protection in their school curricula—and barely one in two countries refer to ocean health or climate action. That is why UNESCO is mobilised to ensure environmental education becomes a key curriculum component by 2025, including in Caribbean schools.
Finally, to sustain biodiversity conservation and natural resource management systems requires the establishment of a new generation of protected areas such as the UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. These sites are composed of varied ecosystems, such as mangroves, dry forests, coral reefs, where we seek to reconcile human economic activity with the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The newly launched North-East Tobago Biosphere Reserve exemplifies well that environmental solution at the disposal of Caribbean states.
UNESCO is committed to strengthening efforts to protect the Earth’s natural heritage and to double the surface area of Biosphere Reserves by 2030. In the Caribbean, the target is to establish one Biosphere Reserve per country. I, therefore, call on all Caribbean countries to take action and partner with UNESCO in the creation of new Biosphere Reserves and the development of a UNESCO region-specific environmental education curriculum. Most of all, I call on Caribbeans everywhere to reconnect to nature around them, nature that sustains life and offers us beauty, meaning and harmony.
—Author Jean-Paul Ngome Abiaga is Programme Coordinator for Natural Sciences and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission at the UNESCO Cluster Office for the Caribbean