On March 13, Cyclone Pam tore through the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, wiping out every manifestation of civilization in its path. The gale’s force smashed to tinder the homes of the 267,000 residents spread across 65 islands. Survivors are now sorting through the debris to piece their houses and lives back together.
A cynic, or maybe even a pragmatic realist, would urge the Vanuatuns not to waste their time. Tropical islands in the South Pacific and many other low-lying waterfronts are doomed to suffer Vanuatu’s fate – sooner or later. This may come from blasts such as Pam or the steadily rising oceans and seas that surround them. In 50 years these islands could be completely submerged. That’s why it is tempting to tell the island people to simply move away before it’s too late. After all, they are expected to be among the first wave of climate-change migrants with many more to follow in their footsteps.
Reports on Cyclone Pam did not shy away from making explicit the link between extreme weather and global warming: The processes of climate change have warmed and swelled the region’s seas — putting 10 to 20 percent more moisture in the air — which amplifies the size and force of storms. In addition to the higher temperatures that generate stronger winds, high sea levels mean that when storms hit, flooding is likely to be much worse. None of this is news to the Vanuatu islanders: They’ve been crying out for help to combat climate change for years.
But both the media and world’s leaders failed to make a link between Vanuatu and Paris. The World Climate Summit will be held in Paris in December. The Vanuatu disaster makes an agreement on legally binding measures to curb greenhouse gases even more urgent. World leaders must agree to keep the planet’s temperature from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius. Otherwise, disasters such as Vanuatu’s are just the beginning. The migration flows, resource scarcity, epidemics, strained state budgets, interrupted trade routes and deterioration of living standards will trigger violent reactions. This is what some European experts call “the climate wars.” It has already began in the world’s poorest countries — but they’ll reach developed nations sooner than we think.
In his 2012 book, “Climate Wars,” German social psychologist Harald Welzer employs the term “wars” broadly to include various aggressions that climate change will unleash as social tensions grow in the most affected regions. Welzer means not only armed conflicts but also non-combat fatalities, for example, the deaths along Europe’s militarized borders on the Mediterranean, where thousands of refugees perish in the sea every year. To be clear, not all of these refugees are all fleeing climate change. But their numbers will swell as competition for resources grow more fierce, deserts get drier, farmlands become more arid, disease breaks out and island and coastal communities are set in motion in search of new homes. These refugee movements, Welzer argues, will dwarf those we have experienced in the past.
Even if CO2 emissions were capped today, precariously placed states and islands would still be threatened either with extinction or, at least face hurricanes such as Pam.
Vanuatu is but only most recent disaster exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Last year, India and Pakistan were hit by the heaviest monsoon rains in recent history, causing a massive flooding that left more than 680 people dead and displaced an estimated 3.7 million. In 2013 Australia faced the worst drought and wildfires since the 1960s, which destroyed hundreds of houses and caused millions of dollars in damage repairs. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said the record summer heat wave was the result of CO2 emissions.
The WMO says 13 of the 14 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century. From 2000 to 2010 the planet experienced nearly five times as many disasters as it did during the 1970s. About 80 percent of those events were flooding and mega-storms. The disasters were 5.5 times more costly in 2010 than they were in the 1970s. The cost of the human and natural catastrophes jumped to $864 billion over the last decade. Five of the costliest global disasters were in the U.S., all storms, which wreaked damage to the tune of $294 billion.
International treaties stipulated regulations that stopped and reversed acid rain and ozone depletion. But there’s no way to reverse global warming. Even if CO2 emissions were capped today, precariously placed states such as Vanuatu, Philippines, Tonga, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, El Salvador and the Solomon Islands, would still be threatened either with extinction or, at least face hurricanes such as Pam.