Treading Water: What Cyclone Pam Reveals about the Climate Change Threat in Oceania

Earlier this month, Cyclone Pam tore across the Pacific Ocean, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. One of the worst hit nations was Vanuatu, a tropical archipelago of 80 islands located northwest of Australia. At least 11 people were killed and as much as 90% of the country’s housing stock was damaged by the storm. As the leaders of Vanuatu and other nations affected by the cyclone begin discussing reconstruction, they are also sharing concerns about another pressing issue: climate change. As he rushed home to deal with Pam’s aftermath, President of Vanuatu Baldwin Lonsdale told reporters “Climate change is contributing to the disaster in Vanuatu”. While it is impossible to link climate change to a specific weather event, Lonsdale’s remarks underscore how great a threat the rising sea levels associated with climate change are to the countries of Oceania. Rising sea levels resulting from climate change pose a threat not only to Vanuatu, but to the rest of the Pacific Island nations, as devastating events like Cyclone Pam are likely to become more prevalent in the future.

While many nations have expressed concern over the effects of climate change, the fear of rising sea levels is most prominent among the leaders of Vanuatu and its fellow island nations. The reason: elevation. Many of Vanuatu’s islands are low-lying, and therefore in danger of flooding, as Cyclone Pam illustrated in dramatic fashion. In this respect, Vanuatu is fortunate because its islands tend to be more mountainous, so some parts of the country would survive a rise in sea levels. The highest point on neighboring Tuvalu is only 5 feet above sea level. Given that in 2014 the U.S. National Climate Assessment projected sea levels could rise between 1 and 6 feet by 2100, Tuvalu could easily be wiped off the map within our lifetimes, and would be joined by most of the Marshall Islands. Even if they were not inundated, countries like Vanuatu, Kiribati Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia would likely face the threat of increased coastal erosion, which reduce the amount of habitable land dramatically. And while Cyclone Pam was a truly massive storm, even a relatively smaller weather event could do significant damage when there is even less distance between population centers and the Pacific Ocean.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that nations like Vanuatu do not have many viable options to handle rising sea levels. As islands disappear or become too close to ocean for habitation, their residents will become refugees. Since this process would involve thousands of people, the relatively small governments of these nations would quickly be overwhelmed. The nearest developed nations are Australia and New Zealand, and countries of Oceania have already begun to reach out to their more developed neighbors to help take on some of these refugees. But again, the numbers pose a problem; it is unclear if friendly offers of support now will translate to open borders when Australia and New Zealand must deal with their own climate change victims, in addition to the flood of foreign refugees. Nor is there any chance that the Pacific Islanders will be able to shelter-in-place, behind a network of levees, dikes, and flood-control systems. While a flood-control solution could work in the West, where funding would be widely-available, it is simply beyond the reach of the cash-strapped Pacific governments. Although Vanuatu’s GDP of $1.27 billion is the second highest in the region, that is less than one hundredth of one percent of the U.S. economy and not even in the top 200 wealthiest countries in the world. In order to save their islands from the sea, Vanuatu and its neighbors would need an unprecedentedly generous aid package from the developed world, and given that other countries will be wrestling with their own sea-level problems, this seems distinctly unlikely. This leaves Pacific Island countries with no choice to face disaster and destruction as natural disasters continue to take a toll on their people.

The leaders of Vanuatu and its fellow Pacific island nations are not unaware of the impending crisis. Vanuatu’s President Lonsdale was not the only regional leader to make the link between recent natural disasters like Cyclone Pam and climate change explicit. His remarks were echoed by President Anote Tong of nearby Kiribati. “For leaders of low-lying island atolls, the hazards of global warming affect our people in different ways, and it is a catastrophe that impinges on our rights … and our survival into the future”. But while the threat is acknowledged, there is relatively little Lonsdale and his colleagues can do. Because they are small, poor, and isolated, the nations of Oceania have relatively little political clout on their own or as a group. Instead, they must work to get larger nations in the West and elsewhere to work on their behalf. Perhaps the world will come together and work to combat climate change before the Pacific Islands are swallowed by sea. But until that day comes, catastrophic natural disasters like Cyclone Pam will likely become a fixture in the region.

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