What has climate change meant for the Caribbean?

“A liveable future for all Small Island Developing States hangs in the balance as we barrel towards a threshold from which recovery is unlikely”, says ocean scientist Danielle Nembhard.

For the past three years, Jamaica-based ocean scientist Danielle Nembhard has been looking at ways to make Caribbean communities more resilient to climate change. Her work mainly focuses on engaging with people (individuals, technical experts, decision-makers, and so on) to collaboratively create solutions, which minimise environmental and social risks. 

More recently, she received a scholarship to pursue a PhD at James Cook University in Australia, to provide research that will support the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Programme. Her research goal is to understand how the communities that depend on the Great Barrier Reef perceive risk. 

“It is well-known that poor and other marginalised people are disproportionately exposed to climate risk and underrepresented at all levels of decision-making”, says Nembhard. 

“I hope to expand on the existing knowledge around climate justice and risk perception to explore how multiple aspects of social advantage or disadvantage (e.g. race, gender and class) intersect to form new identities and perceptions.”

Ours to Save spoke to Nembhard about depleting reef cover and tropical storms in the Caribbean, campaigning for representation in science, and what environmentally sustainable development looks like. 

What insights can you share on coral reefs having travelled around the world to study them?

I wish my insights here were more groundbreaking but the truth is coral reefs are increasingly under threat from climate change. Every reef I have visited has experienced some kind of disturbance that has been caused or amplified by climate change. 

Reefs are also at risk from other factors, including overfishing, destructive fishing practices, sedimentation associated with sea level rise, runoff of nutrients from the land, storm damage, ocean acidification and shifts in ocean circulation. 

In the Caribbean, coral cover has declined by 80% from 1977 to 2001 and may completely disappear by 2035, depending on rates of further overfishing, climate change and ocean acidification. Given that coral reefs directly support over 500 million people across the globe, providing sustenance and livelihood daily, I wish more people understood how important they are. 

What are some of the best ways to encourage development that is also environmentally sustainable?

This is a tough question. It has been my experience that implementing the environmentally sustainable option may often have a higher upfront cost, whether in terms of time or money. This leads developers to choose the less costly option, which may not be the most sustainable. 

One solution is to integrate and mainstream sustainable development and climate resilience into local policy and legislation, so laws can better guide developers.

Another solution is sustainable financing, that is where development banks and financial institutions take environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations into account when making investment decisions, which can encourage more long-term investments in sustainable economic activities and projects. 

I’m happy to see more local financial institutions taking this step to ensure they do not continue to invest in projects with significant adverse environmental and social risks, but here in the Caribbean it is still in the infant stage.

What kind of climate impact is Jamaica/the Caribbean already experiencing?

Caribbean countries are experiencing the full range of climate impacts, from coastal erosion driven by sea level rise, to extended drought periods, to more frequent and severe hurricanes and tropical storms. 

In Jamaica, we haven’t had direct impact from a hurricane or storm in some time, but last year Tropical Storm Eta caused over US$5M in damages to road infrastructure alone across the island. This highlights our vulnerability to direct and indirect climate-driven hazards.

The unfortunate kicker is that these impacts are not isolated but are being experienced simultaneously with other disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic, volcanic eruptions in some instances, and civil unrest. 

As a vulnerable, disaster-prone region, I must commend many governments for the preparedness, response and recovery efforts that have helped to safeguard thousands of lives. However, our capacity is limited in terms of funding and resources for the perpetual and severe threat that is climate change. 

We need collaborative, meaningful climate action now from the world’s most powerful and most impactful to reduce carbon emissions. A liveable future for all Small Island Developing States hangs in the balance as we barrel towards a threshold from which recovery is unlikely. 

What drives you in campaigning so actively for diversity in science?

Well firstly, I want to clarify what I mean by diversity in science. Yes, I am a firm advocate for diversifying the faces and bodies represented in the scientific field. Equally though, I want to advocate for diversity in thought and action from those who have traditionally benefited from systems of inequity and structural racism.

It is one thing to enter the field of science as a member of a historically under-represented or marginalised group, it is another to remain there. 

Oftentimes, as minoritised persons, we enter spaces that are hostile, explicitly and insidiously, on an inter-personal, systemic and institutional level. There have been examples of that recently – as seen with Nikole Hannah-Jones, not a scientist, but a case study of what happens when the idea of diversity, equity and inclusion, is performative at best. 

The truth is that the diversity pipeline in science is leaking and that is not a problem that can be readily resolved by continuously pushing for more representation. Meaningful allyship and action will help to create spaces where we can thrive.

Also, we don’t learn from sameness, we learn from differences. So it is not useful or effective to look at science through one lens or along one axis. Science is about creativity, problem-solving, innovation and communication – things that, at their core, require diversity in thought and action. You simply cannot achieve that without broad, intersectional representation in the room. 

How do you feel about the world’s chances of fighting the climate crisis?

Honestly, the climate crisis is overwhelming, exasperating and oftentimes heart-breaking and the thought of giving up is inviting. But every day I am inspired by the collective action I see happening globally, from youth groups to influencers to celebrities – there is a more conscious effort being made by all to lead more sustainable lives. 

I also see that some countries are taking more significant actions towards a net-zero carbon future, but frankly we need more action and faster. The truth is, I have to believe that we still have a chance to achieve the future I want to see. The alternative to that is just too bleak.

Follow Danielle Nembhard on Twitter and Instagram.