Climate Change Is Wrecking The Pacific


Once more, an island nation in the Pacific has been hammered by a tropical cyclone. The Ha’apai islands in the Kingdom of Tonga were battered over the weekend by Cyclone Ian, a category 5 severe tropical cyclone. Housing was destroyed, trees were stripped of their foliage, infrastructure was damaged and drinking water polluted.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology describes a category 5 cyclone as “extremely dangerous with widespread destruction”, involving very destructive winds “with typical gusts over open flat land of more than 280 km/h”.

Such extreme weather (the short term manifestation of long term climate trends) is highly variable, both regionally and globally, but nonetheless, there is a clear connection between increased global warming and extreme weather events.

According to insurer Munich Re, the occurrence of these events is accelerating around the world and they are statistically outside the normal range of historical experience.

Recent reports from the Pacific-Australia Climate Change Science Adaptation Planning (PACCSAP) program have shown that climate change will increase the intensity (though not the frequency) of cyclones in the South Pacific in coming years.

Already, cyclones in the Pacific are causing major damage, diverting resources away from long-term development assistance programs towards humanitarian response and reconstruction, as reported in NM by Max Chalmers late last year.

Cyclone Heta, which hit the small Polynesian nation of Niue in 2004, caused massive social and economic disruption to the island, which has a population of only 1,550 people.

The damage bill of $30.3 million was nearly three times the value of Niue’s GDP. Waves in excess of 30 metres destroyed houses more than 25 metres above sea level. Buildings were flattened, including the island’s only hospital and the Huanaki cultural centre. The national museum lost 90 per cent of its collection.

In early 2005, five cyclones hit the Cook Islands in five weeks (four of them were classified as category 5 severe tropical cyclones). In 2008, Severe Tropical Cyclone Gene was estimated to have caused $32 million worth of damage in Fiji, mainly to roads and power infrastructure. Tropical depressions and storm surges also caused severe flooding in Fiji in 2009 and 2012, damaging the sugar and tourism sectors.

A survey of flood-affected Fijian households by IUCN found a major increase in poverty after the disaster: 77 per cent of flood-affected sugarcane families fell below Fiji's poverty line and “about 42 per cent of flood-affected farms are expected to struggle to provide even their families basic food needs”.

Severe Tropical Cyclone Evan hit the South Pacific in December 2012, causing damage valued at over $100 million in Fiji. Total damage in Samoa was estimated to be over $200 million — equivalent to about 30 per cent of the country’s GDP. The Samoan economy will continue to feel the negative effects of Cyclone Evan until 2015.

These extreme weather events are part the broader adverse effects of climate change that are impacting on health, livelihoods and environmental sustainability. Even conservative multilateral agencies like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have recognised that there are significant economic losses (pdf) to small island developing states from these climate-linked disasters.

An ADB study in November 2013 shows the economic loss suffered by the Pacific region from global warming could range from 2.9 per cent to as high as 12.7 per cent of annual GDP by 2100.

According to the ADB, the most significant economic losses would be felt in Papua New Guinea, where climate change impacts could trigger a loss of up to 15.2 per cent of its GDP by 2100. Timor-Leste’s GDP is predicted to drop by up to 10 per cent, followed by Vanuatu at 6.2 per cent, Solomon Islands at 4.7 per cent, Fiji at 4.0 per cent and Samoa at 3.8 per cent.

The prestigious science journal 'Nature' has just published research that shows the Pacific can expect more extreme weather due to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and associated (El Niño and La Niña) climate patterns being affected by climate change.

As part of the PACCSAP program, Dr Scott Power’s team from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has conducted more than four years of research into large-scale climate features in the Pacific such as ENSO and predictions of possible changes due to climate change. Their research paper notes:

“By the mid to late twenty-first century, the projections include an intensification of both El-Niño-driven drying in the western Pacific Ocean and rainfall increases in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific … Projected changes in precipitation anomalies during El the Niño years are primarily determined by a nonlinear response to surface global warming.”

However even as the evidence mounts, the Federal Government is stopping the cheques — reducing the resources that might assist our island neighbours. Treasurer Joe Hockey announced last year that he will cut $4.5 billion dollars from planned expansion of the aid program over four years.

The government has abolished the aid agency AusAID as an independent statutory agency (merging its functions into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), which will lead to the loss of experienced staff. At the same time, the government has announced it will not contribute funds to the new Green Climate Fund, an innovative new global mechanism to finance the response to global warming.

These decisions reduce the financial resources pledged for our Pacific neighbours, resources that can protect infrastructure, support water and food security, and assist people’s health and livelihoods in the face of extreme weather events.

Pacific governments are developing an integrated framework that links disaster preparedness and adaptation to climate change. But this initiative needs more support than Australia, the largest member of the Pacific Islands Forum, is offering.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.