Hub Director Spotlight Series: The Unique Challenges and Opportunities Facing Small Island Developing States

Molly Freed
June 07, 2022

Back in 2007, Dr. Adelle Thomas was deciding on the next step in her academic and professional career. Pulling from her experience growing up in the Bahamas, she expressed an interest in sustainable tourism to one of her mentors. “You may want to focus on climate change instead,” her mentor guided, “or there may not be anywhere for tourists to visit in the future.”

With this in mind, Dr. Thomas shifted her focus to studying the impacts of climate change on Small Island Developing States, or SIDS. She is currently a Senior Fellow at the University of the Bahamas and Caribbean Science Lead at Climate Analytics, and her prolific career includes serving as a Lead Author for the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report Working Group Two and the Special Report on 1.5°C, focusing on adaptation and limits to adaptation in small island states. She joins UCCRN this year as Hub Director of the newly formed SIDS Hub.

Dr. Adelle Thomas presenting on risk management and climate change

In our interview, Dr. Thomas stressed the importance of having a specific UCCRN Hub for small island developing states, which deal with a unique set of issues and constraints. The most recent IPCC reports state that SIDS are both disproportionately affected by climate change and also facing limits to their adaptive capacity. Residents of SIDS are often vulnerable to compound risks (e.g., coastal flooding and power grid failure) occurring in smaller, underserved areas, and there is often nowhere safe for them to retreat. In small island developing countries, damage from major climate-driven catastrophes can cost multiple times their annual GDP. They also face an overall existential threat from sea level rise and must grapple with planning for an uncertain future.

These challenges make Dr. Thomas both excited and fearful – she outlines a need for moving away from piecemeal and incremental resiliency interventions and towards a truly transformational adaptation approach. However, this effort will be a huge undertaking, requiring integration across multiple sectors and ecosystems along with significant funding in countries with limited resources. Though there are several small island states that have scratched the surface of developing plans at this scale, there are no examples of implementation due to a lack of funding. This lack of precedent is what drives both Dr. Thomas’ fear and her excitement.

Her goal for the new SIDS Hub is to provide scientific evidence for policymakers to make informed decisions, specifically around compound risks, transformational adaptation, and addressing loss and damages. She wants to connect with other UCCRN Hubs in order to investigate technologies that have been developed in and for wealthier nations that might be adapted for adoption in SIDS. She also told me that there’s much that SIDS policymakers can learn from successful policy development and implementation in nations that have greater capacity, and also much that SIDS policymakers can teach from having to operate with limited capacities.

Dr. Adelle Thomas advocating for SIDS at an international conference

To Dr. Thomas, this work is both academically invigorating and personally resonant—she referenced a number of family members that are already experiencing climate impacts. She finds hope in the progress that has already been made, and in the opportunity of bringing international expertise to SIDS. When I asked about staying motivated in a field that can often be emotionally draining, she responded that it helps to have an active voice, which is one reason that she’s looking forward to chairing the new SIDS Hub. Her message to policymakers is simple: time is running out, and adaptation and addressing loss and damage are equally important components of climate action alongside mitigation. She looks forward to working with other Hub directors and the UCCRN community as a whole in order to ring in this new era of urgent action.