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N Touch
Monday 20 November 2017
Commentary

Shifting the paradigm

The world has entered a new universe with regard to extreme weather.

While the Caribbean emerges from an unprecedented fit of devastating hurricanes, fires in the USA and Europe, hurricanes in Ireland and Britain, severe flooding in Asia and the Pacific are emerging as proof of the deep and rapid global climatic change that is in progress.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), it is going to get a lot worse still. Last year was the warmest on record with sea surface temperatures and levels rising and Arctic sea ice dropping an unprecedented four million square kilometres below average in November.

As the 2016-17 winter progressed, the Arctic experienced the equivalent of a polar heat wave with big Atlantic storms driving an influx of warm, moist air, taking the polar ice cap close to melting point.

That melting sea ice is leading to the shift in wider oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns that affect weather everywhere because of the generated fast waves of air or jet streams.

For regions such as the Caribbean the rising temperatures have led to even more coral bleaching, causing damage of marine food chains, ecosystems and fisheries, not to mention tourism from which so many derive a source of living.

On top of that of course the Windward and Leeward Islands have just been hit with a succession of hurricanes in a fashion and of a ferocity never seen before.

These are uncharted waters for scientists who are constantly developing new computing tools to both track the effects of weather and source its origin. They are now pretty clear that record-breaking levels of man-made carbon dioxide are the cause of increased global sea temperatures.

The benchmark events arising from human behaviour provoke a series of important questions such as: what can we do to save ourselves and how can Caribbean countries recover from these profound changes in weather?

The very viability of some of our countries is now questionable as their economies depend on agriculture and tourism that are knocked out for years to come and the region faces the prospect of more extreme weather year on year. The victim could be any one or several islands next year, and even if TT does not get hit directly we cannot survive unscathed from the decimation of our neighbours nor ignore our own floods and lack of preparedness for a real disaster.

It is difficult to imagine the island of Barbuda for the first time in over 300 years being completely uninhabited after being wrecked by Hurricane Irma and everyone evacuated in advance of Jose and Maria. It has to be worth repopulating but the resources needed to rebuild infrastructure there, in Dominica and in the Virgin Islands is astronomical.

Yet, there is an opportunity to use those islands as incubators for alternative methods of extreme-weather building and for investigating life support methods that include new technologies.

We need a paradigm shift in development planning in profoundly vulnerable regions such as ours and we have to contribute to that ourselves through research at UWI, in partnership with others who have greater resources and shared interest.

I read of a project in Spain to prepare their buildings for WMO-projected 2050 temperatures of four degrees higher than now with nights reaching 40 centigrade. Engineers, working with nine European countries in an EU-funded four-year project, will design new air conditioning systems to cool existing buildings in summer and keep heat in during winters. It is a bid, too, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and reduce energy consumption to almost zero.

Similar undertakings are what we need to plan for apocalyptic imminent futures. Maybe that work is happening but the region has been slow to use EU monies, millions of euros, available to us for similar projects so it is doubtful that we have the vision.

I can’t help but feel that we fiddle as Rome burns.

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