Stronger cyclones ‘new normal’

Island countries are experiencing an increase in the intensity of tropical cyclones, and this will become the new normal.

This was the key message during yesterday’s joint side event between Climate Analytics, and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (S.P.R.E.P.), held during the Twenty-third United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (U.N.F.C.C.) in Bonn, Germany this week.

The side event titled, “Lessons from the Tropical Cyclones Frontline: Adaptation, resilience and loss and damage” drew from the harrowing experiences of Fiji with cyclone Winston last year, and most recently in the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda with hurricanes Irma and Maria, both of which hit the islands in the time span of two weeks.

All three tropical cyclones/hurricanes were category five.

Fiji’s High-Level Climate Champion, Minister Inia Seruiratu of the Ministry of Agriculture, Rural & Maritime Development, and National Disaster Management, spoke of the urgency for climate change action, and encouraged the world’s leaders to work together for a favourable solution in the fight against climate change.

“It is no longer as it used to be. We need to be more resilient. Climate change is a global issue that affects all of us. As responsible leaders, and concerned citizens of the world, we need action now,” said Seruiratu. “In particular, we need high level political focus on Loss and Damage.”

Counselor Tumasie Blair of the Permanent Mission of Antigua and Barbuda to the United Nations, echoed this sentiment and delivered a strong case on the importance of Loss and Damage at the U.N.F.C.C.C. 

“(Hurricane) Irma was a direct hit for Barbuda with wind speeds of 185 miles per hour… 117 deaths in total and counting within the Caribbean – Barbuda was decimated, with 95% of all homes destroyed resulting in the entire island being evacuated. For the first time in 300 years, not a single person is living in Barbuda,” said Counsellor Blair.

“In the last 20 years, Antigua and Barbuda has been hit by over ten hurricanes resulting in damages in the billions, accounting for over 100% of our GDP in totality, because there are no available international mechanisms in place to address Loss and Damage. Our only option is to rebuild by borrowing at rates that are not only unjustified and unsustainable, but also morally unconscionable.” 

In Fiji, tropical cyclone Winston also left a path of destruction, and Fiji’s Ambassador at Large, Climate Change & Oceans, Amena Yauvoli, touched on his personal experience with the monster cyclone.

“Tropical cyclone Winston was a triple hit to my village: strong winds, seven meter waves, flooding – eight of my family members passed away that day. We have been lost, and we have been damaged.”

Ambassador Yauvoli stressed that there was no divorcing the political processes and negotiations, from the science of climate change.

Dr. Michiel Schaeffer, Science Director at Climate Analytics, presented on the science of tropical cyclones, relaying the strong evidence of the impacts of the increased warming of the ocean due to greenhouse-gas emissions, which is causing the current “new normal” of frequently intense cyclones to emerge.

Together with continued sea-level rise, this compounds the risks to coastal zones, which he states will only continue to increase with time.

“If we continue as we are now, the risks of further warming and further sea level rise are projected to be extremely high. Expect sea levels to rise and the most severe tropical cyclones to become more frequent,” said Dr. Schaeffer.

In closing the event, S.P.R.E.P. Director General, Leota Kosi Latu, echoed the sentiments of Dr. Schaeffer, that the science is very clear and the intensity of tropical cyclones will increase.

“The attribution of climate change to the intensity of tropical cyclones is clear. The changes in sea surface temperature, sea level rise, and more intense precipitation all contribute to the increase destructive power of tropical cyclones.  Cyclone Winston in Fiji and hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean coincided with high sea surface temperatures,” said Leota.

The issue of Loss and Damage has been an area of key focus for Small Island Developing States (S.I.D.S.) at COP23. For Fiji, and Antigua and Barbuda, this could not be more important.

“We want to maintain that mitigation and adaptation efforts are insufficient to prevent or alleviate all climate change impacts. We have to maintain a distinction between economic and non-economic loss and damage. In our view, we should create a new funding window through an existing funding mechanism that would offer financial support and compensation,” said Counsellor Blair.

Leota could not agree more, and emphasized the need for negotiators and country leaders to work together to find a solution with regard to Loss and Damage that would ensure the security of countries hit by natural disasters not to be subjected to taking out heavy unsustainable loans with high interest rates simply to assist their communities in recovery.

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