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Undercurrents: Researchers Starting to Examine Climate Change in Territory

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

Those most at risk from climate change are often the least aware of its predicted consequences, and that includes the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Early global warming studies have tended to concentrate on the U.S. and Europe, but researchers are beginning to turn their attention to so-called SIDS – small island developing states – like those that dot the Caribbean.

Two ecological studies, one from 2012 and another soon to be published, suggest the territory is starting to play catch-up in examining its place in a world facing climate change.

A major international publication is preparing a special issue on climate change in the Caribbean and has accepted a paper from researchers working at the University of the Virgin Islands that is specific to the territory.

“This is the first attempt at a survey of an island community,” said Enrico Wensing, who worked with UVI’s Caribbean Green Technology Center and with university graduate students on the project. They surveyed hundreds of V.I. residents in an attempt to assess local knowledge, concern and engagement about global warming and its projected effects – such as an increase in hurricanes, in mosquito-borne illness and major shore erosion.

Initially they tried approaching people in highly trafficked areas like shopping centers, but Wensing said, “We had a hard time getting responses” so they resorted to the Internet and social media.

The study was not perfect, but Wensing said, “It’s an important step. It’s an initial step” toward focusing on SIDS. It’s also one of the first significant studies on the future of climate change in the territory.

The publication date was not available, but is anticipated soon. The journal is Geoforum, which has both a print and electronic presence and bills itself on its website as “a leading international, inter-disciplinary journal publishing innovative research and commentary in human geography and related fields.” Its editors and editorial board are academics from institutes around the world and particularly in the United Kingdom.

Wensing was reluctant to divulge much about the UVI researchers’ findings but referenced the need for alternate energy sources.

He also noted that the concept of climate justice is gaining traction throughout the world. Small island communities and coastal areas will bear the brunt of geographic and weather-related changes attributed to global warming and yet in most instances, they contribute less to the problem than larger, inland communities.

A recent report concluded that the U.S. Virgin Islands fits the profile. Published in 2012, but drawing little attention outside of government and academic circles, “A household carbon footprint calculator for islands: case study of the United States Virgin Islands” concludes that the per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the territory is 35 percent lower than the U.S. average.

Authors on the paper are Rebekah Shirley, Christopher Jones and Daniel Kammen, Energy and Resources Group, University of California.

They calculated the annual per capita carbon emissions for the V.I. as 13 metric tons. While this compares favorably with the U.S., it is enormously higher than many countries and, the authors suggest, could be reduced with some changes in energy usage.

In the U.S., the greatest single contributor to the carbon footprint is fuel used for transportation. In the Virgin Islands, the main culprit is electricity.

It’s not that islanders use so much electricity – in fact, they generally use far less than people living on the mainland. The study cites statistics showing the average home in the territory consumes about 4,000 kWh per year, compared to 11,000 kWh in a Florida home. Only 25 percent of V.I. households have air conditioning, just about half of them have computers and only a third use electricity for cooking.

What’s been spiking the utility-related emissions is the way the electricity is produced – using fossil fuel and outdated, inefficient equipment. Since the report was published, the V.I. Water and Power Authority has begun the turn toward solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. As that trend continues, the territory’s carbon footprint is expected to grow measurably smaller.

The second most significant contributor to the V.I. footprint is fuel use for private transportation – researchers estimated it accounts for about 4 metric tons of carbon annually – followed by water use (2 tCO2e per year) and the consumption of meats (1.5.)

The 2012 report “is the first calculator to be developed for the Caribbean region or for a U.S. island territory and one of the first for SIDS in general,” according to its authors. It’s meant to serve as a model, as a baseline and as an impetus for developing “energy efficiency strategies.”

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