SINT MAARTEN/COMMENTARY - Global temperatures set yet another record last year and the world witnessed exceptionally low sea ice, and unabated sea level rise and ocean heat, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in its ‘Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2016’, warning that the extreme weather and climate conditions have continued into 2017.
The extreme climate conditions also added to human suffering: 2016 saw severe droughts, affecting millions in southern and eastern African and Central American countries. For example, in the Caribbean, Hurricane Matthew – the first category 4 (CAT4) storm to make landfall since 1963 – tore a path of destruction in Haiti and inflicted significant economic losses in the Caribbean region.
At least three times so far this winter (2017), the Arctic saw what can be called the Polar equivalent of a heatwave, with powerful Atlantic storms driving an influx of warm, moist air, meaning that at the height of the Arctic winter and the sea ice refreezing period, there were days which were actually close to melting point due to warm temperatures in this part of the world.
Antarctic sea ice has also been at a record low, in contrast to the trend in recent years, and some areas, including Canada and much of the United States, were unusually balmy, whilst others, including parts of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, were unusually cold in early 2017.
Sint Maarten, and the other islands of the Caribbean Basin also experienced unusually cool/chilly weather during the first two-months of 2017, a testament to on-going global climate change now also at our doorstep.
In United States alone, 11,743 warm temperature records were broken or tied in February, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the WMO.
The aforementioned might seem worlds apart from Sint Maarten and our sphere of life, but it is as close as it gets as well – climate change.
“We are dealing with scientific facts, not politics. And the facts are clear. Climate change is a direct threat in itself, and a multiplier of many other threats,” UN Secretary-General (SG) António Guterres recently told a General Assembly High-Level action event aimed at invigorating political momentum on climate change, highlighting its deep links to the United Nations 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.
UN SG Guterres said his messages to the meeting are simple: “First, climate change is an unprecedented and growing threat – to peace and prosperity and the same in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Second, addressing climate change is a massive opportunity that we cannot afford to miss,” he said.
Tackling climate change is a tremendous opportunity for Governments and business as there is no trade-off between a healthy environment and a healthy economy.
Our economy is based on tourism, a single pillar. This means that we have to be very conscious to protect what we have built over several decades. Our current economic base is facing many challenges, and growth has not been that positive for a number of years.
Sint Maarten’s coral reefs according to the St. Maarten Nature Foundation, contribute annually over US$66 million to our economy. The diving sector is one of our key areas just like cruise tourism, and the mega-yacht/yachting sector, but receives very little fanfare. The Nature Foundation carried out an Economic Valuation Study on Sint Maarten’s coral reef ecosystems.
“The report highlights the economic contribution of healthy coral to the economy of Sint Maarten, which was found to be USD$66,606,042. This study is an update of the 2010 study which found that coral reefs contribute $57,742,997 to the economy, and reflects the increase in coral reef associated values since the establishment of the Man of War Shoal Marine Protected Area.
“The results of this study shows that Coral Reefs are one of the island’s most valuable resources and provide livelihoods through coral reef associated tourism as well as protection from large, damaging waves caused by hurricanes.
“The marine environment of St Maarten includes more than 16km2 of globally threatened coral reef as well as seagrass and mangrove ecosystems. St Maarten’s marine environment is a home and migratory stop over or breeding site for various endangered species and the beaches and waters attract approximately 2 million visitors a year, creating employment for 85% of the islands population both directly and indirectly. Tourism and the marine industry contribute significantly to the economy and both sectors depend on the health of St Maarten’s marine resources,” according to the Nature Foundation.
The aforementioned presents additional opportunities for our country and economy. Additional protected areas should be introduced which would lead to new diving sites (e.g. manmade for the development of our ecosystem) that would further add to the protection of our coastal communities from storm surge; would provide new areas for coral reef growth and growth in fish populations; would create more employment opportunities for our youth as the dive sector grows.
Government and Parliament should work together with stakeholders in developing an “Integral Marine Protection-Dive/Fishery Sector Development Plan” that would nurture the aforementioned in a sustainable manner.
Our country’s underwater ecosystem is not protected from climate change. Reef systems across the globe have experienced “coral bleaching.” Coral bleaching is the dying of corals due to high water temperatures. Nature Foundation says, while any stress can cause corals to bleach, high water temperature has been the major cause of coral bleaching events worldwide in recent decades. When corals bleach for a significant period of time they run the risk of dying all together. Our Nature Foundation has a ‘Coral Bleaching Response Plan’ which was drafted back in 2010.
“Although the consensus is still out, the increased incidences of Coral Bleaching is more than likely caused by the heating up of the earth due to global warming. In the past decades the Caribbean in particular has seen an increased number of coral bleaching events with the last major bleaching occurring in 2005, where more than half of the Coral Reefs in the Caribbean, including St. Maarten, died,” our Nature Foundation reported.
Climate change is a scientific fact. Our underwater ecosystem is making a positive economic impact for the national economy, and can be further developed in a sustainable manner while at the same time mitigating the effects of climate change. In order to accomplish the aforementioned, the necessary urgency and attention of discussion along with resources must be provided.
Where is the country in preparing our readiness and resilience in a time of climate change for a healthy environment and a healthy economy?
Photo Contributed: Nature Foundation.