Who will pay for the effects of climate change on small islands?

Thursday, 14 September 2017 10:42 GMT

A remote Fijian village is photographed from the air during a surveillance flight conducted by the New Zealand Defence Force. REUTERS/NZ Defence Force

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Climate scientists have long made it clear that higher temperatures, higher sea levels will weave together to super-charge storms. Now, we islanders are on the forefront of this reality

By Makereta Waqavonovono, Seini Nabou and Julie-Anne Richards

Our heartfelt sympathies, solidarity and prayers go to the people of Texas and Florida who were pummelled first by Hurricane Harvey and second by Hurricane Irma, in this Atlantic hurricane season with multiple Category-5 storms in a single week.

We know, through awful experience, how hard it is to endure the huge winds and destructive storm surge. And how heart-breaking it is to pick up and rebuild, sometimes through tears of grief for lost loved ones and precious belongings.

We have even more in common with our Caribbean island AOSIS cousins of Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, St Martin, St Barts and Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

We have experienced the dread and apprehension of a savage storm, barrelling through devastation across our tiny island home.

When Cyclone Winston hit our island home of Fiji, in February 2016, it was the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the southern hemisphere.

Fiji was devastated: 45 people were killed, 31,000 homes and 250 schools lost or damaged, villages and communities like Koro Island, flattened, plantations destroyed and water sources contaminated.

There were also associated distressing health and psychological impacts on our people. Fiji was fortunate that the more heavily populated areas and business districts in Viti Levu and Vanua Levu were not in the direct path. However the human toll of Winston’s destruction lingers still, while the human cost of the fury of mother nature remains carved into our national psyche.

Climate scientists have long made it clear that higher temperatures, warmer water, higher sea levels will weave together to super-charge storms. Now, we islanders are on the forefront of this new reality. We are the unwitting canaries in the coal mine.

We are facing the climate change ‘loss and damage’ blown in by gale force winds of decades of international decisions to maintain the status quo of sustained and heightened carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Governments are accountable for these decisions. But the fossil fuel industry - big coal, oil and gas - have done their utmost to undermine climate science and to pollute political decision making.

As work from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Centre for International Environmental Law, Greenpeace and others makes clear, coal and oil companies, like Exxon Mobil, knew how much devastation their products would wreak in the atmosphere and, rather than taking action to reduce the damage, they funded climate science denial for three decades.

As studies this week show, it is now possible to quantify exactly how much climate change each oil and coal company is responsible for.  It’s now up to governments to make sure that they phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible, and in the meantime, force the fossil fuel industry to pay for their climate damage.

Climate risk, loss and damage is mounting. The cost of Hurricane Irma could reach $300 billion, and the governor of Texas says Hurricane Harvey might cost $180 billion. That is not chump change.

But it is the poor people of Texas and Florida who will pay the biggest price, relative to what they have.  After Hurricane Katrina, it took many African American and Latino residents of New Orleans a decade or more to recover from the storm.

In an even more extreme scenario, it is the small island countries that reel under the economic brunt.  When Cyclone Winston hit Fiji, it caused loss and damage of USD0.9 billion (FJ1.99 billion) -- 20% of Fiji’s GDP.

A year and a half later, many homes, some schools, medical clinics and public infrastructure are still being rebuilt and restored with people still living in make-shift shelters and schools conducted in cyclone relief tents.

Given the massive damage in some of the Caribbean islands, there is no doubt that their damages from Irma will be exponentially large, relative to their countries.

Loss and Damage under the Warsaw International Mechanism is THE issue that countries must address head-on at the climate summit - to be led by a Fiji Presidency and so dubbed the “Pacific COP”, and held in Germany in November this year.

This is the time -- there is no better -- to address loss and damage from climate change, and how the international community will show solidarity with the most vulnerable countries on the frontline of climate impacts.

The issue of loss and damage can make big strides, in fact it is long overdue given that AOSIS through its then Grenadan Chairperson had trail-blazed on the issue.

Despite a commitment made at the Warsaw climate conference in 2013, and reinforcing that commitment in the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, we are no closer to providing vulnerable countries with new and additional funding to deal with loss and damage from climate impacts.

This Pacific COP must agree that finance for loss and damage is urgent, that it must be provided over and above the already insufficient and overstretched climate finance designed to reduce emissions and adapt to impacts.

And countries should give themselves a tight schedule, of two years, to start delivering significant loss and damage finance, aiming to deliver at least $50 billion a year by 2020 and $300 billion a year by 2030.

Crucially, countries need to look to the industry that got us into this mess - the big oil, coal and gas companies - to pay their fair share of the cost.

A well designed tax or levy on the fossil fuel industry could raise the $300 billion needed each year, and put it into a central fund, like the Green Climate Fund, so that it can be controlled and accessed by vulnerable countries and communities.

To date, it has been poor people and vulnerable communities paying the real costs of the fossil fuel industry. The Pacific COP has to stop this in its tracks, and make big oil and big coal pay for their damage.

Makereta Waqavonovono is a legal practitioner and adviser and Seini Nabou is a researcher and environmentalist, both with extensive experience in the Pacific, based in Fiji. Julie-Anne Richards is an independent consultant on climate change, loss and damage and the UNFCCC, based in London.