After Cyclone Pam: Climate action is urgent

About 90% of all buildings Vanutu's capital Port Vila were damaged by Cyclone Pam.

Once again the world's poorest people are suffering the effects of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions which they played no role in producing.

On March 13, Cyclone Pam ripped through the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, an archipelago of 82 islands, 65 of which are inhabited.

Cyclone Pam recorded wind speeds of 270 km/h, making it the strongest ever recorded in Vanuatu. Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), which devastated the Filipino islands of Samar and Leyte in 2013, holds the record for the strongest storm anywhere, with wind speeds of 315 km/h.

Both storms hit traditionally cyclone-prone areas, but their level of destruction was unlike anything previously experienced by these communities.

The official death toll in the capital, Port Vila, was 11. The March 15 Guardian said: “The UN said there were unconfirmed reports of 44 deaths in Vanuatu's north-eastern islands after Pam veered from its expected track. However, that number is expected to rise significantly as reports come in from outlying areas.”

Most of Vanuatu's 267,000 inhabitants are rural. Port Vila's population is about 45,000.

The slowness in casualty reports from outlying islands has been matched by a slowness in distributing aid. The BBC reported on March 17 that in the north-western island of Moso, people were without fresh water and forced to drink seawater.

“Drinking saltwater is damaging as the more a person drinks, the more water already present in the body is rerouted to help dilute the excess of salt,” the BBC said. “It can lead to dehydration and death.”

AAP said on March 18: “Aid has started to arrive in some of cyclone-hit Vanuatu's worst affected islands but others remain isolated, with flights over the Pacific nation showing desperate villagers spelling out the letter 'H' for help.”

Vanuatu's Prime Minister Joe Natuman, visiting the hard-hit southern island of Tanna on March 18, said, “it'll be at least a week or two” before the disaster's full impact was known.

Physical destruction has been catastrophic ― 90% of buildings in Port Vila have been damaged.

The March 17 Sydney Morning Herald quoted Oxfam country director Colin Collett van Rooyen as saying: “There are more than 100,000 people likely homeless, every school destroyed, full evacuation centres, damage to health facilities and the morgue.”

Philemon Mansale, from Mele village outside Port Vila, told AAP: “The yams are rotting in the mud. There's no more bananas, fruit, anything. Pam took everything.”

When the disaster struck, Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale was ironically attending a United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan.

On March 16, he told the conference: “We see the level of sea rise … The cyclone seasons, the warm, the rain, all this is affected. This year we have more than in any year … Yes, climate change is contributing to this.

“I am very emotional … We cannot reach our families; we do not know if our families are safe. As the leader of the nation, my heart hurts for the people of the whole nation.”

On March 19, the ABC quoted Amanda McKenzie from the Climate Council as saying: “Higher surface temperatures can mean that you have higher wind speed and more damaging rainfall. And what we saw in Vanuatu was in the lead-up to the cyclone, sea surface temperatures were well above average.

“Climate change has risen global sea levels by 20 centimetres, that doesn't sound like much but when you think about the volume of extra water riding on a storm surge, it's a significant amount.”

Fossil fuel industry-funded climate change denialists fall back on the truism that no single climatic event can be definitively attributed to carbon emissions-caused climate change. This is only true in the same way that no individual smoker's death from lung cancer can be definitively attributed to cigarettes.

The greater frequency and strength of tropical storms is clearly part of a trend.

Underlining this, the March 16 SMH reported that climate scientists were debating whether the Australian Bureau of Meteorology's cyclone scale, which currently classifies the strongest storms as “Category 5”, should be modified to take into account super-storms such as Pam and Yolanda.

“Everyone's been asking this question: should we have a cat-6 or not?” James Cook University Professor Jonathon Nott said.

The Australian government announced it would send at least $5 million of emergency relief to Vanuatu. This comes in the context of the Abbott government's decision last year to cancel a $2 million-a-year package to assist Vanuatu in adapting to climate change that had been instituted by the previous Gillard government.

These amounts are paltry compared to the $3.5 billion that, according to the ABC on November 11, is paid annually by the Australian government in subsidies to corporations for fossil fuel exploration.

This figure does not take into account other subsidies the Australian government pays the polluting corporate elite, such as infrastructure and fuel rebates for mining and road transport.

International Monetary Fund figures reveal governments globally pay the fossil fuel industries about US$2 trillion a year.

This highlights the way that tackling climate change requires confronting the global political and economic systems that put profit before human need.

The problem is not overpopulation. Australia has 0.33% of the world's population, but creates 1.3% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. The Philippines has 1.4% of the world's population but is only responsible for 0.3% of emissions.

Neither is the problem understanding the science. The reality of climate change is generally recognised by governments and international agencies.

Writing in the March 10 Guardian, George Monbiot said: “If you visit the website of the UN body that oversees the world’s climate negotiations, you will find dozens of pictures, taken across 20 years, of people clapping.

“These photos … show hundreds of intelligent, educated, well-paid and elegantly-dressed people wasting their lives.

“The celebratory nature of the images testifies to the world of make-believe these people inhabit. They are surrounded by objectives, principles, commitments, instruments and protocols …

“But, throughout the 23 years since the world’s governments decided to begin this process, the delegates have uttered not one coherent word about constraining production [of fossil fuels].”

Emissions rise while politicians talk because First World politicians are part of a system in which power is held by those who own the means of production ― and the means of production are heavily fossil fuel-based.

That some countries have made big advances in rolling out renewable energy shows that a carbon emissions free world is technologically possible. However, while those invested in the carbon economy control the world, it will not happen.

Monbiot wrote: “Norway, for example, intends to be 'carbon neutral' by 2030. Perhaps it hopes to export its entire oil and gas output, while relying on wind farms at home.

“A motion put to the Norwegian parliament last year to halt new drilling because it is incompatible with Norway’s climate change policies was defeated by 95 votes to three.”

Cyclone Nathan, the Category 4 storm that slammed into far north Queensland on March 20, was a reminder that rich countries like Australia are also suffering the effects of climate change ― even if better infrastructure can, to some extent, better shield the population.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has identified just 10 corporations as being responsible for a third of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions, the ABC said on March 18.

Adapting to a changing climate is becoming an increasing priority. But if emissions keep rising, adaption could quickly become impossible, as new emissions are added to the historic emissions now causing temperatures to rise.

International talks debate how the world can adapt to a warming of two or three degrees, but scientists warn that global warming creates feedback systems.

For decades, scientists have warned that one such system involves the melting of the Siberian permafrost, which could release vast reservoirs of methane, a faster acting greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The appearance of blow holes across northern Siberia in recent months suggest this is starting. This is one of the ways that warming the world's atmosphere by a few degrees can create processes that will cause the atmosphere to heat to a far greater extent.

A March 5 article in the Scientific American said atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are higher than they have been for at least 23 million years.

The survival of human civilisation depends on people understanding the interconnection of struggles against the corporate elite.

Vanuatu has been a vocal supporter of the West Papuan struggle against Indonesian occupation, which has enabled large corporations to ravage the country. On March 15, Benny Wenda, spokesperson for the United Liberation Movement of West Papua, launched an appeal to assist Vanuatu's reconstruction. This is an example of the mutually benifical solidarity needed on a global scale to confront the forces threatening our survival as a species.

[You can donate to the launched by Wenda. Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, the overseas humanitarian aid agency of the ACTU, is running to help rebuild Vanuatu.]