By Sir Ronald Sanders
The peoples of small island states and coastal communities have long relied on the ocean for a multitude of benefits, including recreation, the delivery of goods and tourists, and a vital source of food through fishing. However, all these benefits, and much more, are currently under grave threat due to climate change, global warming, and sea-level rise. The damage is already taking its toll, imperceptibly but steadily, and it is crucial that we take action to preserve and develop the economic opportunities that the sea around us holds.
The World Bank reports that oceans contribute $1.5 trillion annually to the global economy, and this number is expected to double to $3 trillion by 2030. However, the bank also warns that climate change is causing serious changes in oceans, including temperature increases, sea-level rise, and acidification. Oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere, and concurrently, oxygen levels are decreasing.
One of the most alarming issues affecting our oceans is the rampant pollution of plastic waste. According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, around 8 million tons of plastic waste enter the oceans each year. Without drastic action, it is projected that plastic waste could outweigh all the fish in the oceans by 2050. This plastic pollution is not confined to certain areas but is found even in the most remote and deepest ocean trenches. It not only poses a threat to marine life but also inflicts significant harm on communities that depend on fishing and tourism. The magnitude of the problem is exemplified by the existence of a mass of plastic in the Pacific Ocean that is bigger than France.
Oceans, as the largest heat sink on the planet, absorb a staggering 90% of the excess heat caused by climate change. They also act as efficient carbon sinks, absorbing approximately 23% of human-caused CO2 emissions. However, the role of oceans as a carbon sink is directly affected by the impacts of climate change on ocean health. Rising ocean temperatures, resulting from global warming, contribute to thermal expansion and sea-level rise. Additionally, warmer ocean surface temperatures intensify tropical storms, posing a greater threat to coastal communities.
The Caribbean, consisting of small island nations and low-lying coastal areas, is especially vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. Coastal erosion, flooding, and saltwater intrusion are not future possibilities but stark realities threatening the very existence of our communities. The loss of land and displacement of people have far-reaching implications that extend well beyond our regional borders.
Adding to the Caribbean’s woes, the warming of oceans intensifies the destructive force of hurricanes and tropical storms. As global temperatures rise, sea surface temperatures follow suit, leading to more frequent and severe weather events. These natural disasters wreak havoc on our coastal infrastructure, decimate economies, and put countless lives in danger.
Coral reefs, the lifeblood of the Caribbean Sea, are in a state of crisis. Climate change has unleashed mass bleaching events and extensive degradation, threatening the very foundation of these ecosystems. The loss of vibrant coral reefs not only erodes biodiversity but also cripples our tourism industry, a significant driver of their economies.
The impact of climate change on fishing exacerbates food security challenges and jeopardizes the livelihoods of our fisherfolk and populations as a whole. Rising ocean temperatures and shifting marine ecosystems make fish stocks increasingly vulnerable, undermining the sustainability of our fisheries.
Furthermore, the acidification of our oceans presents a silent but deadly threat to marine life. As carbon dioxide emissions increase, seawater absorbs more CO2, leading to acidification that hinders the ability of coral reefs and shellfish to build and maintain their structures. This jeopardizes the entire food chain and ecosystem balance, with profound implications for the Caribbean’s fisheries, tourism, and overall well-being.
In addition to these challenges, the harmful effects of sargassum present an urgent crisis that demands our attention. Sargassum blooms have been occurring with increasing frequency and magnitude, causing ecological, economic, and social disruptions. These large mats of seaweed smother coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other vital habitats, leading to the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of essential marine ecosystems. Furthermore, as sargassum decomposes, it depletes oxygen levels in the water, creating “dead zones” that further threaten marine life.
Several Caribbean islands have already experienced the economic repercussions of the sargassum invasion. The sight and smell of decomposing seaweed along once-pristine coastlines deter visitors, resulting in a loss of revenue, job cuts, and diminished livelihoods for those dependent on the tourism industry. Small-scale fishers also face challenges, as sargassum damages fishing equipment and hinders fishing operations.
It is widely acknowledged that the Caribbean faces an existential threat from climate change. However, the future of the Caribbean region depends on recognizing the value and vulnerability of the surrounding Ocean. It can allow us to swim to greater economic opportunity, or it can sink us under the impact of climate change.
At COP 28, in Dubai in December this year, Caribbean countries must form a strong alliance with other nations, through partnerships with countries such as France and Costa Rica. France will host the third UN Ocean Conference in 2025 in France, following a preparatory meeting in Costa Rica in 2024. The Caribbean should actively participate in both meetings, advocating for the preservation and sustainable development of our oceans and the Caribbean Sea.
(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com)