Climate change: stemming the tide
Bermuda is now well on the road to recovery from Hurricane Humberto, and it is impossible to ignore the reality that it is the fourth serious hurricane to have done damage to our island in the past five years.
Hurricanes Fay and Gonzalo hit in 2015 and were followed by the less severe Nicole in 2016. We then had a two-year respite, marked by some near-misses, and now have endured Humberto.
Compare that with Bermuda not suffering from any hurricane strikes between 1960 and 1987, when Emily blew through a respite of 27 years. A further 16 years followed before Fabian struck in 2003. Now it feels like hurricane strikes are an annual occurrence.
Part of this comes down to luck, good and bad, since Bermuda is still a tiny target, stuck out in the Atlantic. The right recipe of winds, weather fronts and water temperatures have to coalesce to create the circumstances that lead to a hurricane hitting Bermuda.
But as hurricane forecasters are forced to go farther through the alphabet for names — it can’t be many years before Hurricane Zelda is upon us — it is undeniable that the frequency and severity of hurricanes is increasing year by year, not only in Bermuda but around the world.
Equally undeniable, at least outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is the evidence that climate change is contributing to this increase. The New York Times said last year: “Hurricanes get energy from warm ocean water, and the oceans are heating up. Compounding the problem, warmer air can hold more moisture, which can lead to the kinds of intense rain events and high levels of inland flooding ...
“On top of that ... sea levels have already risen because of global warming, and those heightened sea levels make storm-surge levels higher, pushing more water on to land and creating even more flooding.”
There is also some research suggesting that climate change is creating conditions in which hurricanes are more likely to stall, as Dorian did with such tragic consequences over the Bahamas this year.
That the world has not experienced a hurricane of the magnitude of Katrina in recent years does not mean they do not exist — it is just a matter of time before a major hurricane does hit a city such as New Orleans or Miami.
Calculating the cost of hurricanes is hard. It is relatively simple to determine the insured value of the damage, and in financial terms the value of lives lost. It’s also possible to calculate the cost of lost productivity in terms of lost work days and the like.
But there are other hidden costs as well. How much is spent shoring up coastlines in preparation for hurricanes, or hurricane-proofing structures? How many potential visitors to Bermuda decided not to book a trip because they associate the island with hurricanes in September? How many international companies decide it is drier and safer to stay where they are?
It is impossible to say, but the likely damage to the Bermuda economy is much higher than the quoted cost.
Hurricanes are good for one thing, though: they serve to focus attention on the ill effects of climate change in a way that gradually increasing temperatures and slowly rising sea levels do not. But there is also a danger in concentrating too much on catastrophes such as hurricanes or forest fires and not enough on the creeping destruction that rising sea levels and temperatures bring.
One of the problems is in the incremental nature of climate change — in most crises, you see changes immediately, but climate change happens slowly, and you don’t necessarily notice the changes from one year to the next.
This is compounded by the lack of accessible data around climate change, at least in Bermuda.
Local scientist Annie Glasspool did a comprehensive study on the subject in 2008, but this has not been updated even as the anecdotal evidence that change is accelerating has grown. An update of Dr Glasspool’s study is badly needed.
Recently some statistics have become available. National security minister Wayne Caines recently told the House of Assembly that sea levels have risen 19 inches since 1876, and three inches between 2007 and 2017. Thus, the average increase per decade over that time is 1.3 inches, which is substantial. But in the past decade, the rate of increase is three times the overall rate. So not only are sea levels rising, but they are rising faster year by year. It is not the rise in sea levels that should be causing alarm, but the acceleration of the increase.
It is reasonable to assume that average temperatures have also been rising in recent years, but there is no easily accessible compilation of data to show this. Nonetheless, Bermuda’s average temperatures, both in the air and on the sea surface, are expected to increase.
This combination of rising sea levels and rising temperatures has severe ramifications for Bermuda, ranging from harm being done to the reefs to loss of beaches to changes in our agriculture and way of life. Rainfall may turn out to be heavier in the future — but rising temperatures would lead to faster evaporation and the rainstorms may prove to be heavier but less frequent, creating an undesirable combination of droughts and floods.
Thus, the future is likely to contain more frequent and more intense hurricanes — which at least have the benefit of focusing the mind — and a steady erosion of our coasts and changes to our way of life. Given that, it is confounding that Bermuda has failed to take climate change more seriously.
Education is certainly part of the problem, but the very incremental development of climate change also contributes to it.
But so is the idea that there is little Bermuda can do to arrest it.
This is, of course, patent nonsense. If 16-year-old Greta Thunberg can galvanise an entire generation to act, then 64,000 Bermuda residents can and should take concrete steps as well to protect their own interests.
Certainly, compared with great industrial nations such as China or the US, Bermuda’s ability to prevent climate change or mitigate its effects is tiny. But this is a global problem that will require a global commitment to end it, and Bermuda needs to play its part.
To its credit, the Progressive Labour Party government has been more engaged than the One Bermuda Alliance was. Public-private efforts such as the recent lightbulb exchange and the donation of multi-use shopping bags all carry great symbolic weight, and the Government’s promise to ban single-use plastic bags is also welcome, although progress has been glacial. Despite that, home affairs minister Walter Roban, who is responsible for the environment, has turned out to be something of an eco-warrior.
The most significant recent step has been the Regulatory Authority’s decision to require much higher-than-expected levels of alternative-energy generation in the new Integrated Resource Plan. As power-plant emissions from fossil fuels are among the highest producers of carbon for Bermuda, this is critically important. The RA also recently increased the amount that can be paid to private producers of alternative energy, and this will also be an added spur to more solar power generation. Again, under the previous government, these payments were mysteriously reduced.
Customs duty relief for electric cars has helped to increase the number of these vehicles on the road, but the numbers remain relatively paltry. Bermuda should be a leader in the use of electric vehicles, as its short-duration journeys, low speed limit and narrow roads lend themselves to electric car use.
This newspaper is generally reluctant to encourage any government to be more assertive in forcing change on individuals on the basis that Bermuda already has more regulations per square mile than most other countries, but this is one area where the Government may have to act in setting a target for numbers of electric vehicles on the road by a certain date.
One other significant carbon generator often slips literally over the horizon. That is the cruise ship industry, whose ships are much heavier emitters of carbon than passenger aircraft. The Bermuda Tourism Authority has already signalled its desire to reduce the proportion of cruise passengers in Bermuda’s tourism mix and the island’s policymakers should resist the temptation to inflate visitor arrivals, not just because they are not particularly good business, but because of the environmental harm they do as well.
Crucially, climate change need not be all doom and gloom for Bermuda. As has been noted at recent conferences, the island could be a leader in the fight against climate change and this could carry economic benefits as well.
At the Bermuda Institute for Oceanic Science, there is a wealth of research and expertise on the effects of climate on the oceans around us, and this academic research could be harnessed further to ensure that the science on this subject is sound and relied upon. Bermuda is perfectly positioned for this work.
And in Hamilton, Bermuda has perhaps the most concentrated collections of risk management expertise and innovation in the world. This collection of wisdom, combined with the expertise of Bios and Bermuda’s perfect geographical setting, should be the perfect laboratory for finding ways to mitigate the effects of climate change and for funding that effort.
The spin-offs for Bermuda are far from small if the island became a magnet for climate-change expertise. The Ocean Risk Conference held the past two years is one example, but much more can be done. This kind of innovative thinking, with a positive impact on the world, would also do much to counter the damage done to Bermuda’s reputation from its status as a “tax haven”.
Bermuda has the opportunity to lead the world through creating a different kind of triangle — one where scientific research, public-policy initiatives and private-sector financing can help to move the globe away from its present path towards environmental catastrophe.
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