At the United Nations climate summit in Egypt last year, Prime Minister Philip Davis of the Bahamas emerged as one of the most impassioned speakers among the more than 100 heads of state in attendance.
“We have to believe that a safer, better future is possible,” he told the gathering. “We believe that action — real, concerted action — can save the planet and save our human race.”
Yet even as Mr. Davis spoke, the Bahamas was preparing to take a direct hit from Tropical Storm Nicole, the 14th named storm of the 2022 hurricane season. Nicole slammed into what Mr. Davis called “the most beautiful country on earth,” as a Category 1 hurricane before moving on to the United States. The storm ended up inflicting more than $1 billion in damage on vulnerable communities.
It was yet another reminder that the Bahamas is uniquely threatened by the effects of climate change. As the continued burning of fossil fuels rapidly warms the planet, weather is growing more severe, sea levels are rising and developing island nations like the Bahamas are on the front lines of a daily battle between civilization and an increasingly volatile climate. Those issues are among the topics being discussed as leaders in business, science, culture and policy gather on Thursday and Friday in Busan, South Korea, for a New York Times conference, A New Climate.
“It’s only going to get worse,” Mr. Davis said in Egypt. “We are entering a new climate era that will drive extreme geopolitical and economic instability.”
Against that dire backdrop, the Bahamas has in recent years emerged as a leader among the nations scrambling to adapt to a hotter, more dangerous planet.
It has made strides to decarbonize its electrical grid and build out a network of storm-resistant solar installations. Its academic institutions are developing programs to train a new generation of climate-minded professionals. The government has introduced measures intended to sequester carbon. And the private sector is home to a burgeoning network of companies that are working on solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Coral Vita, a private company working to restore coral reefs, decided to set up shop in the Bahamas because it was welcoming of climate start-ups and smack in the middle of one of the most vulnerable regions on earth.
“The Bahamas is a living climate laboratory where we can test these solutions that can benefit nature and can benefit people, too,” said Sam Teicher, the company’s co-founder. “We’re on the front lines of the climate crisis.”
Coral Vita is in what is know as the Blue Action Lab, a hub in the free-trade zone in Freeport that is home to a collection of companies and nonprofit organizations working to build resilient ecosystems.
Elsewhere in the country, efforts are underway to build out a reliable, renewable electrical generation network that can withstand even the most destructive storms.
Hurricane Dorian, which lashed the islands with winds around 185 miles per hour in 2019, left vast swaths of the Bahamas without power.
But since then, the government has worked with partners including the Rocky Mountain Institute, an organization that advocates clean energy, to develop stormproof solar installations. On Great Abaco Island, a solar installation providing a vast majority of power to a group of schools recently came online.
And on Ragged Island, a speck of land off the coast of Cuba, the Rocky Mountain Institute helped create a solar micro-grid that powers every home on the island.
“The Bahamas have made it a national priority that all of its citizens, regardless of what island they’re on, regardless of their income, have access to power,” said Chris Burgess, director of projects for the global south program at the Rocky Mountain Institute. “They’ve been absolutely fantastic renewable energy and adaptation champions.”
At the Bahamas Agriculture & Marine Science Institute, the president, Erecia Hepburn, is integrating climate resilience programs into a range of the institute’s work, including promoting sustainable agricultural practices and an early warning system for coral bleaching, and efforts to rehabilitate damaged mangrove forests.
“I have seen in my short lifetime that climate change is really affecting my day-to-day life,” Dr. Hepburn said.
She said that although the Bahamas had contributed only a minuscule portion of the greenhouse gas emissions that were warming the planet, it was among the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
“As a small island developing state, we may not be a major polluter, but we will be the first to be impacted,” she said. “If we don’t keep temperatures under 1.5 degrees, islands like the Bahamas might not exist. We will soon have to become climate refugees.”
And in an effort that is more about financial engineering than the creation of new solar power or the restoration of coral reefs, the Bahamas last year unveiled a plan to sell “blue carbon” credits to companies looking to offset their emissions. Under the plan, companies can pay the country to preserve natural habitats, such as the coastal mangrove forests, and will in turn receive credits that they can use to offset their ongoing greenhouse gas emissions.
As part of the work to enact the plan, the Bahamas passed new laws to regulate the sale and trading of carbon credits, and struck an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to develop a framework for how carbon credits might be used as a new asset class.
Critics say the strategy is a misplaced effort to make money while continuing to let polluters emit planet warming gasses and that efforts should focus on reducing overall emissions above all else.
“Carbon credits may seem appealing to incentivize conservation funding and climate action, but are unlikely to have much impact in the long term,” wrote Marjahn Finlayson, a Bahamian climate scientist. “They are largely a dangerous distraction from actively reducing planet-warming emissions.”
And yet, despite all the work underway across the Bahamas, the islands remain exceedingly vulnerable.
When Hurricane Dorian ripped through the archipelago it destroyed 73 percent of the mangrove trees on Grand Bahama Island, one of the country’s main islands. The loss of so many mangroves, which grow along the coast and serve as crucial buffers against storm surges, allowed floodwaters to penetrate deeper inland and left the region without a crucial line of defense.
Just four years later, however, much of the mangrove forest is restored. Groups including the Perry Institute for Marine Science have planted tens of thousands of new trees along the coast, restoring a valuable ecosystem that is also a major carbon sink.
It is the sort of small success story that encapsulates the optimism — and cleareyed sense of peril — that the prime minister channels in his public remarks.
“We refuse to lose hope,” Mr. Davis said in Egypt last year. “We will not give up. We have no other choice. The alternative compels us to present ourselves at your borders as refugees. The alternative consigns us to a watery grave. The alternative will erase us from history.”