Rising seas and resilience
Carlos Fuller is the Permanent Representative of Belize to the United Nations and a member of the Climate Security Expert Network. He is the Chairman of the Climate Policy Advisors of the Policy Advisory Committee of the World Meteorological Organization. He served as the Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA) of the UNFCCC in 2017 and 2018. Mr Fuller is a recipient of the George Price Lifetime Achievement Award for Emergency Management and holds the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire for Public Service (OBE).
When my father was a young boy, around seven years old, he was living at home. He had no idea what a hurricane was. On September 10, 1931, Belize was struck by a Category 5 hurricane, which wiped out Belize City with a 15-foot storm surge. His home was lifted up and floated several hundred yards away. Thirty years later, in 1961, I was seven years old when another storm, another Category 5 hurricane, hit Belize City. At that time, we had a rudimentary early warning system, and I was evacuated 100 miles inland the day before the arrival of the hurricane. So I survived. But just as before, the city was destroyed. So the climate crisis got into my blood. After my graduation from junior college, I was recruited by the National Meteorological Service and it’s become a passion and career ever since.
Before becoming the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Belize to the United Nations, I was the liaison officer at the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center, where my role was to coordinate the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) response to climate change, and in particular, getting our 14 countries to speak as one. My entire career has been in weather, climate, and climate change.
I’ve witnessed the impact of climate change escalate over my lifetime. When I was younger, a tropical depression would take about a day to become a tropical storm, and another day to evolve into a Category 1, another to a Category 2, and so on.
Now, with climate change, we’re seeing these systems explode — going from a depression to a Category 5 hurricane in less than 24 hours. We’re seeing these hurricanes intensifying, and in addition, we’re seeing intense rainfall events occurring totally outside of the hurricane season — sudden onsets of heavy rainfall that we’ve never seen before.
Belizeans have lived very closely with nature for eons. The first people of Belize, the Maya, lived in harmony with nature. The Maya moved their agricultural systems every five or six years knowing that the land needed time to regenerate. Similarly, the Garifuna people who came from the eastern Caribbean lived off the sea, able to fish sustainably for generations. Up until the 1950s, a person living on an offshore island, hungry for food, could go out in the morning, walk out onto the reef, reach down, and pick up a lobster to cook for breakfast not knowing that 20 years later, it would become a delicacy. Now, sea surface temperatures are warming excessively in the Caribbean and around the world. In the North Atlantic, it is nine degrees warmer than normal. Coral reefs are dying. Our reef, the Belize Barrier Reef — the second largest in the world — is bleaching. If temperatures get any closer to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, it is quite likely that our reefs, the nurseries for our fisheries, will never recover. We will likely see fish migrate out of the region to cooler waters. Climate change is devastating corals, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests — essential ecosystems that help store carbon and filter the water. And so we are experiencing a severe decline in fishing in the Caribbean.
On top of that, communities across Belize are experiencing tremendous levels of coastal erosion. Many residents have had to relocate further away from the sea and set up temporary communities. Belize has lived with extreme events before, and we’ve been able to adapt. After major hurricanes, our tourism has historically been able to recover after two or three months. But the changes that we are seeing now are stretching our ability to be resilient. We’re going to have to change the way we manage — how we manage our water resources, how we manage our agriculture, and how we manage our urban centers. Some communities like Belize City have been completely rebuilt. A new capital was constructed 50 miles inland following the 1961 hurricane in anticipation of future hurricanes.
Now we face multiple pressures — severe weather events, slow-onset events, saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers — and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to adapt. How do you change a fisherman into a farmer? How do you support a person who used to be able to live on rainwater and now must rely on wells? We urgently need more foreign assistance to respond to this crisis.
I’m hopeful. Belizeans are resilient. We have been able to address our concerns on our own. But with climate change causing permanent loss and damage, we need to look to other countries around us, calling across the oceans to help us to address this global problem. In the village of Monkey River, the cemetery is under water. People are losing everything. To address the climate crisis, we have to recognize our common understanding, working together to look to the future and put systems in place, quickly, and at scale. We need financial support, starting with the Loss and Damage Fund, to assist these communities and address the loss and damage that we are feeling on our coastlines in Belize and around the world.
This column appears in ISSUE 33: VANISHING SHORES of Oceanographic Magazine
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