The Descendants

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The Descendants

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Old Harbour, Jamaica, by Ted Lee Eubanks

A new study led by Michiel Schaeffer of Climate Analytics details a scenario in which global mean temperature is allowed to increase to 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In this scenario the sea rises…between 2 and 4 m over the coming three centuries, while ambitious mitigation targets which limit warming to 1.5 degrees could substantially slow down the rate at which it occurs, resulting in a rise of 1.5 m by 2300, and possibly less than that.

A new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change reports that last year the world’s nations combined belched nearly 38.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. That’s 2.4 million pounds (1.1 million kilograms) of carbon dioxide released into the air every second. Scientists say it’s now unlikely that global warming can be limited to a couple of degrees, the international goal.

Fiddler crab, Jamaica, by Ted Lee Eubanks

In the late 1800s Chicago dumped its sewage into Lake Michigan. The crap floated back to shore. In 1900 Galveston tried to bury some of the 6000 people killed in the Great Storm at sea. The bodies floated back to the beach. The coal industry in Pennsylvania gouged and mined its way to riches, and left the mess (in the form of acid mine drainage) for us to clean up.

The earth’s atmosphere is a closed system. Carbon released is not carbon gone. The bodies are floating back to the beach.

China accounts for over 10 billion of those tons. We may enjoy the benefits of China’s cheap labor, but that inexpensive toaster at Walmart comes with a hidden cost. We are simply passing the check to our kids.

Ghost crab, Falmouth, Jamaica, by Ted Lee Eubanks

I thought about the implications of climate change and sea level rise while walking a beach near Falmouth, Jamaica, last week. Jamaica is wholly unprepared for sea level rise. This is not to say that Jamaicans are not aware, but the country is poor. The Caribbean as a whole only accounts for about 2 percent of global carbon emissions, yet the impacts on these islands will be dramatic. Who is going to pay to keep the Caribbean above the high tide line?

For example, who is paying for the carbon cost of cruise traffic to and from the islands? According to responsiblevacation.com,

…a cruise liner such as Queen Mary 2 emits 0.43 kg of CO2 per passenger mile, compared with 0.257kg for a long-haul flight (even allowing for the further damage of emissions being produced in the upper atmosphere). That means it is far greener to fly than cruise. In addition to the increase in CO2 emissions, there is often a need to fly to the departure points of the cruise, clocking up even further carbon emissions.

Shell on the beach at Manatee Bay, Jamaica, by Ted Lee Eubanks

On average, passengers on a cruise ship each account for 3.5 kilograms of rubbish daily – compared with the 0.8 kilograms each generated by local people on shore.

The local people, of course, see the cruise ships as a source is desperately needed income. But how many cheap t-shirts and turquoise earrings need to be sold to scrape by at a subsistence level? There is an irony in all of this, of course. Tourists spew their ways to the Caribbean to enjoy coral reefs and exotic sea life now threatened by ocean acidification. They then memorialize their trip with a Usain Bolt t-shirt manufactured in China.

Tiger-beetle on the beach, Manatee Bay, Jamaica, by Ted Lee Eubanks

I wonder if people realize what is at risk? No, not every plant and animal will be extirpated. Life is resilient. Current projections show centuries before the absolute worst of the warming is on us. But there are immediate impacts, and a suite of species and communities that will be hurt. Start at the coast.

What are we willing to sacrifice? Walk any Caribbean beach and look at your feet. That shell? This ghost crab? What about the fiddler crab or the tiger-beetle? What about the fishing culture in Old Harbour that is already on the ropes? What about the Jamaicans crowded along the coast with nowhere else to go?

Wilson’s plover, Goat Island, Jamaica, by Ted Lee Eubanks

And what about the seabirds that nest on the islands along the Jamaican coast such as Goat Island? Even a minor rise in sea level will flood these places. Are we willing to sacrifice bridled terns, Wilson’s plovers, and brown noddies so that we can continue with our profligate ways?

I am struck by the irony of it all. The colonial powers stripped the islands of their riches in the past, and those people remaining, largely the descendants of slaves, are now facing another disaster inflicted on them by many of these same foreign interests. Isn’t it time for Jamaicans to assert themselves and demand a more equitable relationship with these powers? Isn’t it time for the Caribbean to rise above its past and demand a fair shot at a future? When, dear Caribbean, will you finally get pissed?

Bridled tern, Goat Island, Jamaica, by Ted Lee Eubanks


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Catch up on past issues of Caribbean Birdwatch, a feature in Liat's Zing magazine that highlights the region's birding hotspots.

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