Hurricane Dorian’s destruction of the Bahamas raises stark questions about the future of the Caribbean in a changing climate.
Basav Sen, director of the Climate Justice Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, joined KPFA’s UpFront to discuss whether climate disasters are causing more damage than in years past, the impact of poverty on preparation and recovery, and “disaster capitalism.”
According to Sen, there have been two profound changes in Atlantic storm systems.
First, the storms have intensified. “As the planet warms, ocean waters are warmer, and that’s where hurricanes get their energy from, he explained.” Moreover, there is the “phenomenon of hurricanes hovering over land for longer,” which allows them to cause greater damage.
Second, our “warming planet also raises sea levels, and that means storm surges go further inland to where more people are, [causing] even more damage.”
The wealth — or poverty — of a nation can make a substantial difference in climate resilience, Sen added.
“When infrastructure is destroyed, you have fewer resources to rebuild,” said Sen. This is especially true, he added, “if you have a large debt burden to international financial institutions and foreign banks that takes up a large part of your budget.”
He went on: “It’s not just about rebuilding. It’s about the state your infrastructure is in to begin with. If your infrastructure is poorly maintained, it’s more likely to be damaged.”
Sen warned that poor regions struck by major disasters are especially vulnerable to “disaster capitalism” — that is, economic and political profiteering in the wake of the catastrophe.
So, who’s ready to swoop in to take advantage of disasters like Hurricane Dorian? Said Sen: “It’s the very corporations who benefit from the exploitation of the global South to begin with.”
The clearest example of this is the tourism industry, he said. “They come in and take even more land from farming and fishing communities.” They “take away prime coastal islands and turn them into glittering coastal resorts for the benefit of the people from the global North.”
These resorts also contribute to the climate crisis. “They consume a lot of energy, produce a lot of waste and pollution, and create a little island within an island that replicates Northern luxury and Northern fantasies of what it’s like to be on a beach in the Caribbean,” said Sen.
These resorts typically exclude people from the Caribbean, who are allowed in only as low-wage service workers. Plainly, Sen said, these resorts are “playgrounds for rich white folks in the middle of predominantly Black Caribbean islands. It’s like contemporary economic apartheid.”
Unfortunately, such storms are only going to get worse.
“Sea level rise [and] severe storms will continue no matter what — even if humanity as a whole were to cut its fossil fuel usage drastically over the next few years, and even if we keep global temperature increase above pre-industrial levels to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” said Sen.
“We are still going to see a lot of climate change impact in the Caribbean, unfortunately.”
But all is not lost. Sen noted the power of social movements to “mobilize and put pressure on their governments to adapt to climate change in a way that actually benefits local populations.”
But addressing the climate crisis in the Caribbean will also require “adequate resource flows from the North to the South.”
“You could call it reparations for colonialism, for slavery, for climate change, for the entire history of exploitation,” said Sen.
Regardless of what it’s called, there needs to be an effort on the part of the global North to assist global South countries in restructuring their economies and their societies for the effects of climate change.
“The combination of these can lead to just outcomes,” said Sen, “where people will be able to survive with dignity — with adequate housing, adequate livelihoods, food, and clean water.”