Massive destruction wrought by Cyclone Pam is a reminder that we must work together to fight for island futures, writes SHIRLEY LABAN*
OFFICIALS from across the region are meeting in Samoa this week to discuss Pacific responses to a changing climate.
They meet with a renewed sense of urgency, as they consider shared positions for a global climate deal.
That deal, expected to be finalised in Paris in just 200 days, will cement future international action on climate change.
A bad deal will place our collective future in peril.
There could hardly be a greater reminder of the need to address climate change than Cyclone Pam.
The category 5 supercyclone tore through Vanuatu – my island home – in March this year.
Packing wind gusts of more than 300kph, Pam’s destruction was unprecedented. The storm destroyed the homes of 75,000 people, decimated food crops and crippled sorely needed infrastructure.
And it wasn’t just Vanuatu either.
Families in Tuvalu and Kiribati suffered devastating flooding as huge waves battered islands hundreds of kilometers from the storm’s centre. Communities in the Solomon Islands also lost their homes and crops.
For Pacific island countries, and for the world, Cyclone Pam is a window on our collective future.
We know that unusually warm waters contributed to Pam’s strength. In future, as carbon levels in the Earth’s atmosphere increase, severe cyclones like Pam are expected to become more common.
Furthermore, in a warming world, rising sea levels will increase the destructive power of cyclones.
Pacific islanders did not create this future. For countless generations we have lived in a sustainable balance with our environment, growing our own food and drawing on resources from the sea.
Now, because of pollution we are not responsible for, we face catastrophic threats to our way of life.
We are not responsible for climate change, but we must lead the fight for our own future. As policymakers the world over consider a climate deal, island governments must demand meaningful action.
We know that developed countries must reduce their emissions as soon as possible. To avoid the most devastating impacts we must limit global warming to less than 1.5°C.
Warming beyond that level will generate impacts that will be unmanageable for many Pacific countries.
Island leaders must remind our friends they need to do more to reduce emissions. In particular our neighbours, Australia and New Zealand, need to show greater initiative.
Cyclone Pam has reminded us there are some things we cannot adapt to. Vanuatu is a strong and resilient nation.
Communities will continue to draw on their own strengths as they respond to the effects of the cyclone.
Even now they are rebuilding their homes and replanting their gardens. However, make no mistake, the country has been devastated.
Agriculture and tourism will take years to recover.
Rebuilding vital infrastructure will be a huge, and expensive, undertaking. Costs associated with the cyclone are conservatively estimated to be around USD300million, or 30 percent of Vanuatu’s GDP.
These are costs that Vanuatu simply cannot afford to pay.
Pacific island leaders must explain to the global community that Pacific countries will continue to experience devastating losses and permanent damage associated with a changing climate.
Even if drastic action is taken now to reduce emissions, we know that more events like Pam will come.
The countries responsible for emitting greenhouse gas emissions must take responsibility for the impact of their pollution.
In the lead up to Paris, island negotiators must push hard to ensure that loss and damage mechanisms are written into the text of any new global agreement to tackle climate change.
The biannual Pacific Climate Change Roundtable is being held in Apia, Samoa, from May 12-14.
In addition to the roundtable itself, a closed UNFCCC preparatory meeting will be held to help island officials prepare negotiating positions for talks in Bonn, Germany, in early June.
The Bonn meeting will pave the way for crucial talks in Paris in December, when a new global deal is expected.
The road to Paris has been a long one already, but now more than ever we need to work together to present a united Pacific voice on climate change.
The people of Vanuatu expect us to make sure the whole world learns the lessons of Cyclone Pam.
· Shirley Laban is convenor of the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN). PICAN brings together civil society actors in Pacific island countries advocating for climate justice. PICAN is a regional network of the global Climate Action Network (CAN-International).