Philipsburg, Sint Maarten—Franklin, middle-aged inhabitant of the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, cocked his head when I asked him about climate change. “There is already a lot of flooding because of storm surges in hurricane season,” he said, his ebony brow creased. “If the sea level rises four feet, then Philipsburg is gone.” Philipsburg is the capital of the Dutch side of the island, Sint Maarten, a major receiver of cruise ships, with its Front Street a collage of high-end shopping and outlets for island specialties like guavaberry liqueur. The UN estimates that the oceans will rise at least four feet in the next eight decades.
The picturesque Caribbean, with its turquoise waters and sun-kissed white sand beaches, conjures images of happy family vacations, heady rum cocktails, and nighttime calypso rhythms for most outsiders. Its economy has become heavily dependent on tourism, with nearly 30 million arrivals annually—rivaling the number of permanent inhabitants (around 40 million) of these islands. The tourists bring in $35 billion a year. Sint Maarten receives about 1.5 million cruise-ship visitors a year, and half a million tourists who fly in to Princess Juliana International Airport. Tourism now accounts for 80 percent of Sint Maarten’s economy.
Precisely because of this dependency on a tourism centered on beaches and wildlife, the Caribbean is among the areas of the world most vulnerable to the deadly effects of climate change. This menace is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and release of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Saint Martin, divided into a French north and a Dutch south, is a poster child for this looming disaster.
Tadzio Bervoets, the energetic young head of the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation in Philipsburg with Bruno Martins good looks, told me, “Climate change is already affecting Sint Maarten’s environment.” He points to unusual dry spells and unseasonable torrents. “I have even seen times recently,” he remarked with amazement, “when part of the Great Salt Pond has dried up. I could walk on its bed.”
Bervoets’s personal experience with the Great Salt Pond, a landmark in Philipsburg, is supported by scientific research. Data collected on the island of Barbados over 40 years show that both daytime and nighttime temperatures have steadily increased. Scientists say that as the islands heat up more moisture will evaporate from the soil and from ponds, and fresh-water aquifers may not be so easily replenished. Clay soils will dry out and crack, which will cause them to lose even more moisture.
Environmentalist Victor Peterson concurred about the issues. A former politician and now building engineer for the Westin Dawn Beach Resort and Spa, he complains, “Simpson Bay has been filled in to some extent by developers. The lagoon has shrunk and marine life has been damaged.”