Request Info

Researchers Report on the Double Environmental Injustice of Climate Change in the Bahamas

Climate change has been linked to catastrophic changes in Atlantic hurricane behavior. These changes have made hurricanes in recent years, such Dorian in 2019, Michael in 2018, Maria in 2017, Irma in 2017, and Matthew in 2016, more destructive to the built environment and vital infrastructure, more harmful to the physical and mental health of island-based and coastal populations, as well as more deadly in their aftermath.

In a podcast with The New England Journal of Medicine, James Shultz, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Disaster and Extreme Event Preparedness and voluntary professor in the Miller School’s Department of Public Health Sciences, said, “There has been a worldwide research endeavor that has demonstrated that climate change is a reality and climate change is changing hurricanes. What we know is that after watching storms over periods of decades, they are now becoming stronger, wetter, and slower-moving.”

Hurricane Dorian, for example, highlighted the effects of these changes. The hurricane made landfall on the Great Abaco Island with sustained winds of 185 mph, produced deluges of rain, and a 23-foot storm surge that submerged entire neighborhoods. As it moved onto Grand Bahama Island, its forward motion stalled, and residents experienced strong eye-wall winds for 40 hours.

Dr. Shultz also led a perspective paper in The New England Journal of Medicine, where he and three co-authors, which included, Duane Sands, M.D., the Bahamian Minister of Health, James Kossin, Ph.D., atmospheric research scientist at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Weather and Climate, and Sandro Galea, M.D., Dr.P.H., dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, reported on the double environmental injustice associated with climate-driven hurricanes.

Double environmental injustice refers to two interrelated observations. First, socioeconomically disadvantaged and marginalized populations are experiencing disproportionate harm and loss as more hazardous storms are worsening conditions. Second, while small-island states, which are populations that are most vulnerable to Atlantic hurricanes, contribute nearly nothing to climate change, they are most exposed to risks that are worsened by the carbon emissions from higher-income countries.

At a glance, the Caribbean’s 44 million residents generate 0.4 percent of the world’s total global carbon emissions. The Bahamas, specifically, produces below 0.01 percent. Because of where the 29 Caribbean islands are geographically located, they have endured the effects of recent catastrophic Atlantic storms.

In the podcast, Dr. Shultz explained that “we have seen evidence that burning of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide and methane, tend to be setting up what is actually making these changes, which are what we call climate drivers.”

These climate drivers are warmer oceans, which is the source for energy for hurricanes, and warmer air temperatures, which lead to higher atmospheric moisture carrying capacity that generates heavy rainfalls and precipitation rates. Also to consider are that warm waters of the ocean go down deep, propelling hurricanes at high strength, and sea-level rise, which is due to the expansion of the ocean because warmer water takes up more volume.

“Putting these things together gives us the trifecta of the stronger, wetter, and slower-moving storms,” Dr. Shultz added.    

In the aftermath of these storms, affected populations have faced health consequences as a result of widespread power outages, water contamination, inoperative sanitation systems, and acute food insecurity. Due to widespread power outages, for example, patients with special medical needs, or who are dependent on electronic devices or life-sustaining therapies, may face threats to survival.

When there is substantial damage to infrastructure, homes have been left inhabitable, which has led to population displacement and survivors to swelter in health-compromising heat and humidity. These conditions have also made them vulnerable to vector-borne diseases.

Mental health consequences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, or anxiety disorder, have been in survivors who have been directly exposed to extreme storm hazards. In the Bahamas, specifically, there are current recovery initiatives to help those who are undergoing these mental health consequences.

Co-authors advised that with recognition of the effects of these storms, action is necessary on several fronts. They provided five suggestions.

The first was that communities need to strategically prepare for stronger storms by revising building codes and redesigning neighborhoods to redress existing socioeconomic inequities to make housing safer and more affordable, as well as make infrastructure more resilient, with a specific focus on electrical power systems.

In terms of the health care system, they advised that it needs to be undergirded to uphold access to lifesaving services, as well as to the operability of life-sustaining treatments. Priorities include fortifying hospital facilities, auxiliary electrical power, and workforce protection for health care staff. They also suggested improving warning systems, upgrading the structural integrity of hurricane shelters, and ensuring citizen compliance with evacuation protocols.

The final two suggestions included increasing citizen engagement in disaster preparedness and response, as well as increasing collaboration among health professionals, climate and population scientists, and clinicians to better plan health responses in communities that are affected by hurricanes.

“Sea levels will not recede, average global temperatures will not decline, and hurricane hazards will not moderate. We need to prepare now for future Dorian-like scenarios in a manner that redresses environmental injustice,” co-authors noted in the paper.

Written by Amanda Torres
Published on January 21, 2020