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Much Ado About Nothing?

climate-change-photo2You decide:  an argument for change.

By Marlon Hibbert, Scientific Monitoring Officer, DECR

As the year 2007 draws to a close, the world is turning its attention to Bali, Indonesia where countries will meet under the United Nations banner to forge a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international treaty designed to reduce greenhouse gases. What does all this really mean though? For years scientists has been warning of the warming of the earth mainly due to emissions from our fossil-fueled lives.

Here in the Turks & Caicos Islands, sea surface temperatures have shown a general upward trend for the last 20 years. The highest temperatures ever recorded here were in 1998 and 2005. During these two years the TCI experienced the worst cases of coral bleaching in their recorded history.

Global warming is occurring because the sun’s rays are being captured in the earth’s atmosphere by high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants. Most of this CO2 is produced by the burning of fossil fuels, mainly from oil and coal deposits. The inability of these rays to exit the earth’s atmosphere is commonly called the “greenhouse” effect and the result is that the earth’s temperature is rising and has risen by 1ºC over the last 100 years.

The high population growth and rapid industrialisation of the past century have increased our usage of fossil fuels and the vast amounts of fuel burned for electricity generation and transportation are the highest contributors of these “greenhouse gases” to the atmosphere. The two commonly identified systems capable of absorbing a great deal of this CO2 are the world’s forests and oceans. Unfortunately forests are being removed at very rapid rates and our oceans are being polluted in likewise fashion. We humans, it seems, are creating an environmental catastrophe around ourselves.

Some scientists now believe that even if we were to cut emissions in half (as per the Kyoto Protocol), the long-term damage has already been set in motion and the world will still feel the effects of global warming for many years.

Why is global warming a threat?

Answers to this question are both simple and difficult to explain. The most holistic answer is to look at it from the angle of climactic change. If worldwide temperatures increase, tropical countries, like ours, will get warmer. Temperate and cold countries will get warmer as well. But consider that these natural biomes have developed around stable climactic conditions since the last major ice age about 21,000 years ago, and now these climactic conditions seem to be changing in a matter of decades. Weather patterns in particular are being affected. Some changes have been positive, but others have been negative. Some countries, for example, are receiving more rainfall while others are going through longer periods of drought.

In our area of the world, the incidence and intensity of tropical cyclones (hurricanes) are being fuelled by higher temperatures. Eight of the past ten years have been the overall warmest ever recorded. Natural disasters like these reduce the capabilities of people and governments to grow economies and the ever-increasing loss of life and property, of course, are causes for concern.

climate-change-graphThe Turks & Caicos Islands is a low lying country, much of it rising to only a few feet above present sea level. One of the predicted effects of climate change will be sea level rise. Increased temperatures will melt polar ice caps and glaciers, reducing fresh water for consumption in some countries but also increasing sea levels. The glaciers of Kilimanjaro in East Africa have been reduced by 80% in the past century and the streams and lakes that they feed are drying up, causing water shortages for hundreds of thousands of people. Some coastal villages and farmlands in the low-lying Pacific Island nation of Palau have already been invaded by salt water.

For low lying countries, this means disaster and most of the world’s population live within coastal regions. At greatest risk are the smallest nations, the island states. Already burdened with the problems of developing nation status, climate change comes at a bad time. Importantly, these nations are nowhere close to being the greatest contributors to climate change but will be among the worst affected. Much of the TCI as we now know it could be underwater; significant resources would have to be found to relocate people and infrastructure.

Rising sea temperatures also mean that coral reefs  around the world are all threatened. Corals are almost at their upper limit of temperature tolerance now. The incidences of coral bleaching are increasing in frequency worldwide and with increased temperatures have come more coral diseases. Any further warming may finish reefs  around the world for good. Land based sources of pollution are exacerbating the effects of bleaching and disease. Loss of coral reefs for countries like the TCI could lead to a collapse of fisheries which are completely dependent on the reefs for food and habitat.

The trickle-down effects of global warming are staggering:

  • Ocean acidification
  • Ocean circulation changes
  • Extreme temperatures
  • New diseases
  • Hydrological changes
  • Ecological disruption
  • Species loss
  • Atmospheric circulation changes

What can be done?

al-gore-at-meetingA concerted effort must be made by the countries of the world not only to reduce their emissions but to find a way to reduce the CO2 deposits in the atmosphere. Some scientists are certain that just planting trees will not solve the problem, but new and innovative ways will have to be found to remove CO2.

The countries who are most threatened by the climactic changes need to make the world hear their voice. The first step in finding a resolution to any problem is education — the better informed people are, the more likely better decisions will be made.

The information is out there and widespread. Using this information, people are going to have to change their ways of life and thinking to ensure that they are playing their part in helping nature heal itself.

Climate change is not a governmental issue, it is a people issue, and strategies to adapt and prepare for climate change have to be instituted at the national and international levels.

There is, in some circles, an idea floating around that too much is being made of the climate change and global warming . . . yet all around us, the signs are clear. More active hurricane seasons, more intense storms, flooding disasters, increases in forest fires and lengthy droughts are all examples of changes. Conversely, some feel that effects of climate change are being underestimated and the real story is not being told.

Yet as humans are the most likely cause of these changes (IPCC 2007), how then can we throw caution to the wind and ignore these signs? Should we side with the doubters and refuse to take charge and prepare ourselves? Or should we begin an immediate and rapid change worldwide to counter the effects of our own design? Good sense must prevail. We must not forget  the lesson we teach to our own children:  “Prevention is better than cure.” Erring on the side of caution can do us no harm, but if we ignore our own best advice, we wouldn’t only be wrong, we could be dead wrong.



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On the Cover

Agile LeVin—photographer, explorer and chronicler of everything TCI on his website www.visittci.com—took this drone photo of the multi-textured wetlands of West Caicos. He was part of the expedition that investigated the site of the historic pirate attack in the area. For more information and photos, go to page 48.

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