That sounds terrifying. What about after the hurricane? How do you address post-disaster recovery in your planning?
: We try to build resilience, meaning the hurricane hits and the country can be up and running the next day or within a couple of days. The country is 60-100 percent reliant on desalination. But when you get a hurricane, there is too much sediment to desalinate the water so you have major water issues. It’s really important for people to have cisterns. Cisterns are under the house, whereas water storage tanks are outside of the house and often get destroyed during a hurricane. But cisterns are very expensive to build, so they’re not that common. After Hurricane Luis it took three months to get electricity restored island-wide. Now we have solar energy. If your panels survived, they need to be grid-interactive; it does no good to have solar if it’s dependent on the grid. In Antigua, a lot of the solar that’s come online has been grid-tied. It’s much cheaper, but it’s not that easy to change. So we’ve been working to improve our climate resilience even within our renewable energy sector. We’ve also been working to make sure that the police, defense force, and fire station are in really strong buildings. In Barbuda, the hospital was totally wiped out. The police station lost its roof and the police had to go to the fire station during the hurricane. You need to have your critical services really secure.
The question is, how do we build this into resilience? I work on grant applications and I get a lot of pushback when I try to make that case — Is this even adaptation if it’s post-disaster recovery? Who should be paying for that? It’s really tough to get the funding to do it all. And frankly there’s not enough funding. Every dollar has to be spent really strategically and efficiently to have the impact that’s needed.
As a climate negotiator for a small island nation, how do you build support from other countries at international climate conferences?
: That’s been one of the most interesting parts of my job since I graduated from F&ES. I think how much leverage you have internationally depends on the leadership you have nationally. Once you get there, it’s really about the relationships you build with different alliances and partners. You have to look at trade-offs, and what’s politically and economically feasible for all countries. My boss, Ambassador Diann Black-Layne, has been in negotiations for a long time, about 15 years. Diann is a really strong advocate; she can engage with countries on the issues. Countries such as the U.S. can have a team of 30 advisors, one for each issue, and we basically have two or three people covering the entire thing. It’s not a level playing field, but we have the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and we have really good leaders for all of the areas. For example, Belize leads on climate finance; Jamaica leads on adaptation. Most multilateral processes are very slow, but what we’re seeing now is that 20 years of work at the international level has resulted in the Paris Agreement, which is great momentum forward.
What are climate models predicting for hurricanes in the Caribbean?
: The impact on hurricanes from climate change is one of the widest divergences across climate models. There’s consensus that the intensity will increase, but I haven’t seen projections of what that means for a person living in Antigua. Does that mean where we used to get Category 2s and 3s are we are now going to get Categories 3s, 4s, and even 5s? The baseline seems to be changing. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
) is really important. That’s really the authoritative science we use in our day-to-day discussions on climate change adaptation. For islands that are really small, or anyone really, to come up with climate change predications at a scale which is useful for engineers is very difficult. But we need to get to that level if we’re going to adapt. We’re already exceeding what was predicted. If we take our very high level projections — for example, between a one and four degree temperature rise for Antigua; between 10 and 40 percent decrease in rainfall — you need to have very different planning processes and associated costs. These are all things we’re going to be working on with our national adaptation plan. But we need better science at a granular level for that process.
What would you say to students who are working on these issues?
: The message I would tell students is, really try to get your research to the users. It’s really important. It can have big implications. In the Caribbean, climate change is at the top of the political and technical agenda. But this is something that we’re figuring out as we go. You see practices that you know are outdated, and you know that academia and the literature has moved on a lot further than what we’re still doing on the ground. So, especially in small islands, F&ESers can get meaningful experiences and have impact on the ground.