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 storm’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 Vanuatuans 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.
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 the media and world leaders failed to make a link between Vanuatu and the World Climate Summit, which 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 begun in the world’s poorest countries — and 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. He means not only armed conflicts but also noncombat 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 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, he argues, will dwarf those we have experienced in the past.
Vanuatu is only the 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 massive flooding that left more than 680 people dead and displaced an estimated 3.7 million. In 2013, Australia faced its worst drought and wildfires since the 1960s, which destroyed hundreds of houses and caused millions of dollars in damage. 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 occurred since 2000. 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 megastorms. 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 caused 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, the Philippines, Tonga, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, El Salvador and the Solomon Islands would still be threatened with extinction or at least face hurricanes such as Pam.
This means all stakeholders must fight global warming with much more intensity and through sustained investment on several fronts. For one, the community of nations must agree on binding targets at the U.N. conference in Paris. The EU wants to pin down collective commitments that will put the world on track to reduce carbon emissions by at least 60 percent below 2010 levels by 2050. There is a reason to hope that the U.S. and China will be on board. Yet the EU’s targets and timelines might not be enough to keep global temperatures from rising less than 2 degrees.
Second, a parallel campaign must be waged to rein in the world’s hydrocarbon industries. National economies could jettison coal by 2050 and still remain viable economies on the world market, according to a 2014 report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. So far, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Finland have pledged to do just that. Grass-roots movements are also applying more pressure as their ranks grow. For example, led by the U.S.-based 350.org, the divestment campaign has signed up several hundred cities, universities, foundations and churches to drop their portfolio investments in the fossil fuel industry.
Finally, renewable energy is growing worldwide, led by wind and solar power. Countries such as Germany are showing that highly industrial, export-driven economies can thrive on the open market and transition to renewables at the same time.
But these measures are not sufficient or fast enough. Climate change is the paramount challenge of our time. Future generations will judge us by what we do today to mitigate its effects. As writer and activist Bill McKibben points out in his book “Eaarth,” future generations stand to face dire consequences if temperatures are allowed to rise above the 2-degree mark.
Last week the people of Vanuatu became the latest victims whose homeland and livelihoods have been ripped apart by unmitigated disaster. This grim reality is not as remote as it might appear. The climate wars have already begun. And they won’t be confined to the world’s poorest nations or islands in the South Seas.