Small island states in the Pacific pay the price for climate change procrastination

Vanuatu has become the latest victim of unstable weather in the Pacific Ocean. Cyclone Pam – the strongest of four major storms currently active in the South Pacific – made landfall there on Friday and Saturday, causing a still-uncertain amount of death and destruction.

“Recent events in the South Pacific are showing, once again, the ongoing consequences of conditions directly resulting from climate change,” said Adam Koniuszewski, Green Cross International Chief Operating Officer. “Rising ocean temperatures and sea levels contribute to increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.”

One Voice for the Pacific is a campaign bringing together leaders of all Pacific Island nations to form one united voice to communicate to the world the serious threat of global climate change already affecting Pacific Island nations. Green Cross Honorary Board Member Jean-Michel Cousteau has been a leading voice for the group. He has long considered Pacific Islands “canaries in the coal mine” of climate change.

(From left) Green Cross COO Adam Koniuszewski, Green Cross France and Territories Director Nicolas Imbert, entrepreneur/adventurer Luc Hardy and Jean-Michel Cousteau met in January to discuss the global climate change agenda.

“Rising ocean levels, increasing intensity of storms and swells, longer droughts – less predicable, and far more dangerous weather are the telltale signs of climate change that scientists have been warning us about for decades,” he said in an open letter following Oceania 21 in the summer of 2014. “Although the entirety of the Pacific island nations contribute less than 0.1 per cent of the global carbon dioxide emissions, they are leading by example through vowing to completely reduce their dependence on the carbon emitting fossil fuels that threatens so many of their lives.”

The campaign calls for collective leadership from small island states, decisive actions leading to global policy change, taking serious measures to combat climate change, fostering renewable energy, and setting aside large marine reserves around the world.

For Vanuatu, devastated by Cyclone Pam, the need for action is clear. The country’s President, Baldwin Lonsdale, stated categorically in an interview with the Guardian that climate change is threatening his people’s survival.

“We see the level of sea rise … the cyclone seasons, the warm, the rain, all this is affected,” he said. “This year we have more than in any [previous] year … Yes, climate change is contributing to this.”

Lonsdale was attending the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction when the cyclone hit. He was – ironically – stranded there until the airport in Vanuatu’s capital of Port Vila could be re-opened.

“This is a very devastating cyclone,” he said. “It is a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu … All the development that has taken place has been wiped out.”

“Today, we – the international community – owe a debt of solidarity to the peoples of the South Pacific who lived through this cyclone,” said Cousteau. “We owe it to them to takes steps preventing or mitigating future disasters. Whether we achieve that will be the measure of success or failure at ParisClimat2015.”

The total damage from the cyclone remains unclear, as many of Vanuatu’s 65 inhabited islands are still out of contact. The country is home to about 250,000 people.