It's not possible to simply 'adapt' to Hurricane Irma

by Mohamed Adow | @mohadow | Christian Aid - UK
Thursday, 14 September 2017 10:21 GMT

A boy walks amongst debris on the beach after Hurricane Irma passed the area in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

If Florida with its infrastructure and financial muscle buckles under the pressure of Hurricane Irma, bear a thought for the small islands of the Caribbean

Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, has caused mayhem across the Caribbean and left parts of Florida underwater. The scale of the disruption it has caused to the world’s richest nation shows just how difficult we find it to adapt to storms of this magnitude.

Sadly this is just a sign of things to come. A report by Christian Aid last year showed that Miami would be the most financially exposed city to coastal flooding over the next 50 years with $3.5 trillion of assets at risk by 2070.

But if Florida with the infrastructure and financial muscle of an economic superpower buckles under the pressure of Hurricane Irma, bear a thought of the small islands of the Caribbean which bore the brunt of Irma’s fury and have barely the resources to ensure a decent standard of living for their people, let alone the investment needed to protect themselves from record breaking hurricanes.

As the Prime Minister of Barbuda, Gaston Browne, told CNN, Irma damaged 95 percent of the islands' properties and left Barbuda "barely habitable”. "We're living the consequences of climate change,” he concluded.

The good news is that these vulnerable small island states will have a louder voice at ‘COP23’, the next annual UN climate summit taking place this November in Bonn, Germany. It will be the first time the presidency of the talks will be held by a developing, small island state, Fiji, a country particularly vulnerable to climate impacts.

Fiji’s low lying neighbours in the Pacific, face an existential threat from sea level rise and have long had a significant voice at global talks. Now they will be able to bring their perspective from the very front line of climate breakdown to the world’s top table.

Top of their list of priorities should be the issue of loss and damage, the recognition that for some of the most vulnerable people ‘adapting’ to future levels of climate change is simply not possible. For example a number of small island states will have to be relocated to higher ground. Sea walls and flood defences are of little use when your island is already underwater.

Likewise, poorer nations that have 95% of their building levelled cannot ‘adapt’ to hurricanes like Irma nor pastoralist communities, like those experienced by my home region of East Africa, that have their livestock and livelihoods destroyed by lethal droughts.

This was formally conceded in 2013 when richer nations signed the snappily titled Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage. This was strengthened further when loss and damage was made a third pillar of the Paris Agreement alongside mitigation and adaptation. But so far progress has been slow in making it a reality.

So in Bonn the Fijians should help bring the reality of climate change into the heart of the negotiations and make progress on this critical issue.

Global civil society organisations are calling for rich nations to show solidarity with the most vulnerable communities and countries, and place within their reach the resources to adapt to climate change and to fight the inevitable and increasing impacts.

Clearly we need to do so by firstly preventing more loss and damage arising from climate change by reducing pollution from fossil fuels. Secondly, we can’t just continue to ignore the adaptation needs of the poor.

Whatever assistance is necessary to help the poor must be provided to ensure adequate climate protection – such as building sea walls and planting more drought-resistant crops and to undertake disaster risk-reduction activities.

Unfortunately, the procrastination by rich countries over cutting emissions has locked in a damaging level of warming.

The need now is for the first Pacific Presidency of a COP to ensure loss and damage is treated with the same importance as the other elements of the Paris Agreement. Rather than just being given lip service, it must be taken seriously and addressed.

So the Fijians at COP 23 must make progress on loss and damage and create a roadmap to a Fiji International Fund for Loss and Damage which could actually start to collect and distribute money to those nations that need it.

Such a step would be a positive outcome from the first ‘Pacific COP’ and a fitting response to the wake of destruction left by Hurricane Irma, whose victims will still be trying to rebuild their lives during the November summit despite the gaze of the global media having moved on.

Mohamed Adow is Christian Aid’s International Climate Lead.