Column: Impact Of Climate Change In Bermuda

November 14, 2021

[Opinion column written by John Gibbons]

Until the 12th of November, Glasgow in Scotland is hosting an important conference, known as COP26. As the name suggests, it is the 26th Conference of the Parties, an annual event where representatives of the world’s nations, as well as lobbyists, scientists, artists, businesspeople and many more gather to discuss the climate crisis and plan humanity’s response. This year’s is particularly important. The Paris climate agreement of 2015 committed most of the world to keep global warming “well below” 2˚C, and ideally below 1.5˚C. Following that agreement, the signatory nations are required to assess their progress and set new goals every five years.

Last year’s summit was cancelled due to the pandemic, so this crucial meeting is being held this year, against the desperate background of a world that has already warmed by 1.1˚C. The news from the latest official reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which will echo constantly around the conference, is that in order to avoid warming above 1.5˚C, humanity must emit no more greenhouse gases on a net basis by 2050. “Net-zero by mid-century”. Frankly, even these limits of 1.5 and 2˚ will not be enough to prevent disaster, and will need to be revised as decarbonisation progresses.

What does climate change mean for Bermuda? We will mostly see and feel its effects in the ocean surrounding us. The sea is already higher around the world than it has been during the lifetime of any reader. How many of us have noticed that high tide is higher than years ago? The rise in the sea has actually been quite small in absolute terms, only about 99mm. However, do not be fooled by the small number.

Porous, flat areas [like our own coast] can be susceptible to flooding far inland with this small change. Low-lying coral islands in the Pacific are already seeing this. Apart from the standard negative effects of flooding, this salts fields and gardens, and erodes building work. Furthermore, a small rise in sea level is greatly amplified during hurricanes, when the seas are high. This is the most noticeable and detrimental effect on Bermuda so far.

Hurricanes form and feed on warm water. As the world warms, the seas also become warmer every summer. Every resident has surely noticed the increased frequency with which we are hit by tropical cyclones, and the many annual near-misses. The long-term average for annual hurricanes in the North Atlantic since 1966 is about eleven tropical storms per year, including hurricanes. Since 2000, the average has been over fifteen.

This average hides the devastation of bad seasons, such as 2020, when there were thirty named storms, so many that we went right through the Latin alphabet and part way through the Greek. Indeed, the authority responsible for naming storms has stopped the use of the Greek alphabet, anticipating that it would be used so regularly in the coming years, for such devastating storms, that the custom of retiring names would lose meaning. In that year, Bermuda was affected by five tropical storms and hurricanes, which is the same number as the whole of the 1910s.

Beneath the surface, the wildlife that we depend on for food, enjoyment and tourism is also suffering. By the end of the summer the water is extremely warm. Those who jump in to catch lobster on the first of September find the water murky with microscopic life that thrives in the heat, and signs of bleaching on the top of the reefs. Bleaching happens in excessively warm water, when the corals expel the microscopic algae that live within them, which make their food. The corals then turn white.

They do continue to live, but they are in a much-weakened state and many subsequently die. Due to our northerly position, we have so far been spared the worst of it, unlike areas such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The Great Barrier Reef, 1,500 miles long and the product of as much as 600,000 years of coral growth, has lost half of its coral to warm seas since 1995. The UN has warned that if 1.5˚ of warming is reached, 90% of the world’s corals will die.

Another effect of climate change comes from a non-warming effect of carbon dioxide. When the gas is dissolved in water it creates a weak acid. For this reason, most water is naturally – and harmlessly – acidic. As the amount of carbon dioxide in the air has risen, so has the level of acidity in the ocean. The chemistry is a little complicated, but what this means is that the calcium carbonate shells and skeletons of marine animals such as coral and shellfish are increasingly brittle, and many die as a result.

These animals are an important part of the food web, and without them other creatures have less to eat, which means, ultimately, fewer fish [to add to the enormous pressure we put on them by overfishing, here and worldwide]. Fewer fish in turn means less food for us, and less for the larger marine animals we love to see, whose populations in turn are reduced.

Bermuda’s contribution to this global crisis is essentially minimal, it must be said. Let’s be under no starry-eyed illusions that a Bermuda free of fossil fuels will do too much to make a world free of them. That task is essentially up to the governments and large corporations of the big, populous countries.

However, we should not use this as an excuse for inaction. It is still right, and desirable, to decarbonise our lives. We must do our part, and we must not be a part of the problem. We must lead by example. We have a chance to show the world the way forward, while drawing attention to the plight of small islands like Bermuda.

Furthermore, the world is going to decarbonise out of necessity, hopefully before mid-century. We will be forced to adapt, and this will be all the smoother if we have taken early steps. The good news is that Bermuda does have plans for this, found in various documents such as the 2015 Electricity Policy, the Electricity Act 2016, and the Integrated Resource Plan [IRP] of 2019. The headline goals are for 38% of our electricity generation to come from renewable resources, and for this to emit no more than 294.7 kilotons of carbon dioxide annually, by 2035.

The IRP sets out an ambitious plan for 75-85% renewable energy and annual emissions from electricity of 71 kilotons of CO2. For context, our total annual emissions from all sources are 600-700 kilotons today, much of which is due to electricity. Within this scenario are plans to install 60 megawatts [MW] of offshore wind power, 21 MW of solar, and 50 MW of electricity generated from biomass. This is a clearly laudable plan.

However, the plan is praiseworthy but not perfect. It does have some shortcomings, one of which is its reliance on biomass. Biomass energy is preferable to fossil fuels insofar as it does not contribute to the net carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It uses renewable organic matter from other processes, like farming, the carbon for which ultimately had to come from the atmosphere in recent times. By contrast, fossil fuels have been in the earth for millions of years, and burning these contributes new carbon dioxide, which is the essential reason for the climate crisis.

However, biomass power still requires burning the biomass, which emits carbon dioxide. Zero-emission generation like wind and solar is preferable. A second issue is that it does not plan for net-zero emissions by 2050, which is required. Will we be able to achieve this in what may emerge as the second fifteen-year plan? Only time will tell, but as it goes by we must remember that net-zero by 2050 is a hard deadline, with no room for error.

We must also remember that the plan is still just a plan. It will need to be carried out, and I would urge every resident, Bermudian and non, to keep a close eye on progress. We must give our full support and apply all the necessary pressure to see it done. Our lives depend on it, in a very real sense.

We have to remember that the IRP also only covers the generation of electricity. In the areas of importation and travel, Bermuda is responsible for generating considerable emissions, and there is no local plan in place to curb these.

Bermuda imports the vast majority of the products we buy, by ship and by plane. The greatest impact comes from food, meat being the worst. The chain of your average steak is something like this: cows are grazed, or fed grain, from land that once held forest, which is an effective absorber of CO2. The cows expel methane, a potent greenhouse gas [and there are about a billion cows]. Once slaughtered, they are processed mechanically and pass through a refrigerated or frozen transport chain for days, even weeks, until reaching your plate.

This remarkable feat of human ingenuity requires a staggering amount of fossil fuel to achieve, every step of the way. It is for this reason that you may have heard that it’s important to reduce your consumption of animal products, and that is absolutely true. It is extremely important that humanity does that as soon as possible, on a massive scale. In general, we in Bermuda should aim to cut our dependence on imports wherever possible.

While it’s unlikely that this can happen quickly in any meaningful way, as individuals we can reduce the amount of carbon spent on importation by buying locally as much as possible. Fruit and vegetables are an easy target, and another is the effectively on-demand air shipping we have for couriering, and online shopping. The convenience factor is enormous. The detriment is as well, and we should all try not to use these services whenever we can.

For courier services, increased use of electronic communications, and improved mail service would help this immensely. If you buy products from local businesses instead of ordering online, the items are more likely to have been imported by ship than plane, which produces as much as fifty times less carbon. This has the added benefit of supporting the local businesses.

Then we have the issue of air travel. Most of us know what it’s like to get rock fever and need to get away for at least a few days. Worldwide, air travel counts for some 2-3.5% of global emissions [more than the UK, for example, at 1%]. Much like cold-chain logistics, the magnificent wonder of sending a machine through the air takes an astounding amount of energy, and therefore an astounding amount of fuel.

An Airbus A380, which is a massive passenger jet, burns around 200,000lb of fuel going from London to New York. It has been calculated that the average round trip flight across the Atlantic, generally on planes smaller than the A380, will melt 32 square feet of polar ice. There are around thirty flights from Heathrow to JFK per day, which is only one of several London-New York routes – that makes a football pitch every 50 days. The majority of air travel to and from the island is shorter than this, and none of our routes is quite as long as London to New York.

Nonetheless, we do a lot of flying for such a small place, and much of it is discretionary. Improvements in remote working hopefully mean less business travel in the near future. Unfortunately, there is no remote vacationing. Yet, it is a simple fact that until air travel becomes carbon neutral, as it does eventually intend to, less travel abroad is objectively the better course.

You have likely heard it before, but the prognosis for the world is dire. The changes that are happening as you read will lead to the displacement of millions of people, war, famine, drought, storms, the mass destruction of nature, and the extinction of as much as thirty percent of species. Despite this, we must remain positive, for we have no other choice, and worrying does not solve problems. Much of the climate crisis is out of our control, sitting here on our little island. But we must take control where we can.

A famous poster from World War One shows a man in the future, being asked by his children what he did in the war. He has no answer. We cannot remain stuck in our ways until the sea comes to take us. In our future, we must have an answer.

- John Gibbons is a concerned Bermudian and member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps


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