Climate change in the United States is a matter of concern with droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires and more happening with greater severity and more often.
In the Bahamas, it is more than a concern, it is an existential threat.
"Climate change is a matter of life and death for us here in this country," said Bahamas National Security Minister Wayne R. Munroe. "There is a choice – if there is not a reverse – to either become refugees or die. It is that serious a matter for this country."
The United States takes climate change seriously and Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro journeyed to the island nation off the coast of Florida to pledge support for the Caribbean nations fighting for their very existence.
Del Toro made the trip — the first by a secretary of the Navy to the Bahamas – to hear from those fighting against climate change and to find out how the service can help in the struggle. Daniel P. Erikson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs, accompanied the secretary.
"The consequences of our changing climate are an existential threat," Del Toro said during a speech at the University of the Bahamas in Nassau. "The increasing severity of those consequences are already being acutely felt here in the Caribbean. You are on the front lines of the climate crisis."
Del Toro emphasized that all nations of the region must cooperate to address climate change and put in place policies to halt the rise in global temperatures and mitigate the effects that will surely happen given the changes already evident.
"Climate change does not respect borders or multilateral groupings," he said. "Hurricanes do not care what passport you carry, whether Bahamian, Jamaican or American. Islands around the world — including those that are part of the United States, such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — share similar climate challenges."
In that light, Del Toro praised a partnership between the University of Hawaii and the University of the Bahamas. The two university systems will work together to combat and mitigate climate change. Del Toro also announced an upcoming partnership between the Naval Postgraduate School and the University of the Bahamas.
Hurricanes have slammed the Bahamas, with five major hurricanes hitting there in the past eight years. One of those – Dorian – killed 50 people and more than 1,500 are still missing.
"We know that many other storms, minor storms that bring more rainfall than they did in the past, are now also more frequent, causing landslides and flooding that take a devastating human and economic toll never giving you a chance to fully recover, to come up for air before the next storm threatens once again," Del Toro said.
But climate change also means sea-level rise, and the Bahamas and many other island nations in the Caribbean are in danger. The highest point in the Bahamas is just 200 feet above sea level. The rise that has already occurred has meant coastal flooding, saltwater intrusion into groundwater, and more extreme temperatures. "They are severely impacting not just the environment, but people's daily lives and livelihoods, especially in the critical tourism industry," the secretary said.
The nations of the region are responding to this threat, and the secretary pointed to PACC 2030 — the U.S.-Caribbean Partnership to Address the Climate Crisis. Vice President Kamala Harris announced the initiative in June 2022. The two main strategic goals of PACC 2030 are to strengthen energy security and to promote climate adaptation and resilience.
"The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps team has been working on climate and energy security for a long time, and we are accelerating and broadening those efforts," Del Toro said.
"We know that urgency is in order. Time is not on our side," he continued. "We are in the critical decade to make meaningful progress so that we can avoid the worst climate scenarios. We must act now. We view the climate crisis much the same way as damage control efforts on a stricken ship. This is an all hands on deck moment."
The Department of the Navy is stepping forward with Climate Action 2030, a broad, multi-pronged approach. The Navy is working to improve efficiency of ships, electrifying vehicles and greatly reducing emissions. "We are upgrading water and electrical infrastructure right here in the Bahamas at our Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center," he said. "We are bringing on more renewables, which means fewer fossil fuels and lower emissions. Over the last decade, we have added more than one gigawatt of renewable energy to the grid."
The Navy is also funding efforts to help restore coral reefs and is eager to pursue further efforts on coral reef research, regrowth and even creation.
Climate action requires partnerships, he said. "The plan calls for partnerships. We want to share and trade information, resources and expertise with governments and [non-governmental organizations] around the world," he said. "Everywhere from Vietnam to Ghana to right here in the Caribbean, we are collaborating on projects, enabling best practices to cross-pollinate. Climate Action 2030 will help ensure that great ideas, like climate change itself, have no borders."
The Department of the Navy works alongside other U.S. government agencies to address crises brought about by climate change. "We recognize that the resilience of our friends and neighbors in this region is of critical importance to our own security, and we want to help," the secretary said. "That's why key elements of our involvement in the Caribbean are training exercises, as well as medical and engineering expert exchanges, to empower strong and collaborative regional responses to emergencies."
This covers everything from responding to health needs after a storm and also building greater resilience and local capabilities to prevent, identify and safely respond to vector-borne diseases, which are becoming less predictable and more prevalent as the climate changes, he said.
He noted that the USNS Comfort, the Navy's 1,000-bed hospital ship, is a common sight in the Caribbean and plays a vital role in the wake of climate change disasters.
The Navy is putting its money where its mouth is, as Navy engineers have planned, designed and carried out dozens of projects in the Caribbean from humanitarian assistance to military construction projects. "In fact, since 2008, our engineers have executed nearly $100 million in construction projects in the region," he said.
These projects include airfield improvements and an emergency operations center in the Bahamas; upgrading a pier in Barbados; an operations center and other disaster relief infrastructure in Dominica; emergency response facilities in St. Vincent and the Grenadines; and expanding the hangar and warehouse at the airfield on Exuma Island, which is an essential disaster response hub.
The engineers also worked in Jamaica, St. Lucia and Haiti. "And we are scoping a future project with the Royal Bahamas Defence Force at Coral Harbour," he said.