Economic growth trumps climate change

These bungalows on Paradise Island are located at sea level.

In the run-up to the climate conference Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati, has emphasized in various interviews how important combating global warming is for the fate of his people. But climate change isn’t at the top of the agenda for all of the country’s politicians or inhabitants. In a guest contribution for National Geographic Beate Ratter explains why.

Many articles on climate change warn about the disappearance of small islands. For some islands, it seems to be the most urgent issue, while others couldn’t care less – even though they’re equally at risk.

Kiribati, Tuvalu and Maldives are much-cited examples of islands threatened by rising sea levels. Further, with the climate conference soon to be held in Paris this December, in various interviews Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati, has emphasized how important combating global warming is for the fate of his people.

Climate change? Other issues are more important

The same can’t be said of the President of the Bahamas, despite the fact that 80 percent of his country is less than a meter above sea level. In other words, the Bahamas are every bit as much at risk as Kiribati. In a century’s time, the majority of the Bahamas could be underwater.

Nonetheless, the local government considers other topics to be much more important than climate change. And if you ask average citizens – just as we do in the course of our research – what you’ll essentially hear is: yes, climate change is a problem, but right now it’s much more of a threat to Bangladesh. There are more pressing problems to worry about, like criminality and drug trafficking, or the repercussions of the global financial crisis.

For the Bahamas, economic growth is the top priority. Not a developing country, the Bahamas are home to several major commercial sectors. These include tourism, which accounts for 60 percent of the nation’s revenues. For example, one current project is the enormous Baha Mar hotel complex: located directly on the beach, it will offer an expansive seafront view, casino and golf course on the main island New Providence. It alone represents an investment of ca. 3.5 billion dollars – and has been plagued with nearly as many problems as Berlin’s still-incomplete Brandenburg Airport.

Expensive dream destination: luxury hotel complex Baha Mar under construction

By way of comparison: 350,000 dollars have been earmarked for the country’s climate adaptation plan, 250,000 dollars of which were supplied by the government itself. The goals of the plan are to promote greater public awareness of climate change and to more closely monitor adherence to building codes.

However, the massive Baha Mar didn’t have to comply with those building codes in the end, since another – albeit much smaller – hotel had already been built on the same property. Nevertheless, a seawall and wave breakers were added in order to reduce the potential damages of storms. The reason: the hotel’s insurance provider insisted that they be installed.

The beach is a hazard zone

Fundamentally speaking, every new building directly on the beach should be viewed critically. The consequences of global warming aren’t limited to rising sea levels; they also include increased coastal erosion, the destruction of coral reefs, and a rise in the intensity of the yearly hurricanes – a fact that especially makes beach areas into hazard zones.

But the droves of tourists not only contribute to the pursuit of questionable projects; they also – together with climate change – intensify the islands’ other environmental problems. One concern is the water supply, since it’s not only the 300,000 local inhabitants but also roughly four million tourists a year who need water for drinking and bathing. Since the subterranean freshwater reserves can’t hope to keep up with the daily demand, drinking water is produced at two seawater desalination plants or transported from the larger but sparsely populated neighboring island Andros, a method that is expensive, consumes a great deal of energy, and generates large amounts of plastic trash. The problem: when too much water is drawn from the freshwater lenses and the sea level continues to rise, it becomes more and more likely that saltwater will penetrate and destroy these local water sources.

Accordingly, there not only has to be a shift in mindset among the populace, but also in the government. At least in this regard, Kiribati is a step ahead of the Bahamas.

Geographer Beate Ratter is investigating how small islands are responding to the impacts of climate change. This summer she traveled to the Bahamas in preparation for her next research project.

 

 

Source: National Geographic, November 2015