Vanuatu and Cyclone Pam: A Glimpse of Future Aid Relations and Responsibility?

Since the 1990’s, Small Island countries have been warning of the impending disasters of climate change. In 1992, Ambassador Robert Van Lierop of Vanuatu said, “It’s a question of survival, it’s that simple. At the very least, sea level rises of a foot or so could wipe out island ecosystems. At worst, whole islands could disappear under water.”

At the time, Van Lierop was serving as the first chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in the United Nations climate negotiations.  Twenty years later, on March 14, 2015, category 5 Cyclone Pam tore through his home country, destroying over 90 percent of Vanuatu’s capital city Port-Vila and devastating the string of 83 islands that make up the country.

As sea level rise, intense cyclones and severe tropical storms become increasing realities for Small Island Countries, what role does the international community play in preemptive and post-disaster aid?

Vanuatu and Cyclone Pam: A glimpse into future aid relations?

Following Cyclone Pam, several countries pledged international aid. Australia, the U.K., New Zealand, and the Netherlands pledged $3.8 million, $2.9 million, $1.8 million, and $544,000 respectively, while the United States and the Seychelles both pledged $100,000, and Singapore pledged $50,000. Both China and Japan pledged to donate supplies needed for relief and resettlement, respectively offering to provide supplies worth $4.8 million and $165,000.

Australia and New Zealand, followed by France, the U.K., and the U.S., sent immediate aid including supplies, medical, rescue, and relief crews.

It is important to ask what drives countries to support Vanuatu. Is it an act of compassion or solidarity? Is it an act to help a neighbor from a fate the donor country barely escaped? Or did some countries pledge aid not out of solidarity or charity, but rather out of responsibility? A responsibility for building the cyclone, or the complicated responsibility following a prolonged and confused history of colonization (Vanuatu only reached independence in 1980 after 200 years of colonization from the U.K. and France).

China’s Ministry of Aid stated their $4.8 million of in-kind aid was, “To express the People’s Republic of China’s condolences and solidarity for the Vanuatu government and its people, the Chinese government pledge 30 million yuan worth of tents, food, power generators and other urgently needed supplies for relief and resettlement.”

France and the Seychelles were the only two countries to reference climate change associated with their aid.

France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, Laurent Fabius said, “This disaster occurred as the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction was taking place in Sendai. We know that 70% of so-called natural disasters are linked to climate disruption. Cyclone Pam is a new warning for the international community to shoulder its responsibilities.”

“Taking action for the climate means first protecting the most vulnerable people. More than ever, we are up against an emergency. Everything must be done to ensure that the Paris Climate Conference makes an ambitious agreement possible,” Fabius added, diplomatically referencing the climate talks France will host in December.

Out of “sympathy,” the Seychelles offered $100,000; a generous amount, considering in 2013 the Seychelles had a GDP of $1.44 billion, and the United States, which pledged the same amount of aid, comparatively had a $16.77 trillion GDP in 2013.

“The cyclone, which has just struck Vanuatu – a sister small island state – with such catastrophic effects and the tragic loss of lives is a clear manifestation of climate change, which some persist to deny,” said Seychelles President James Michel.

President Michel continued, “Today it is the South Pacific, tomorrow it could be us. When will the international community wake up to reality and put our efforts and resources to get a binding agreement to reduce global warming and sustain the survival of our planet?”

Politics of Denial 

Meanwhile, in the United States, GOP republicans expressed resistance in contributing relief funds–both immediately to Vanuatu and as its larger responsibility to the global community through the Green Climate Fund. As documented by Environment & Energy Publishing’s ClimateWire story, “on the sidelines of hearings examining a $22.3 billion funding request from the U.S. Agency for International Development, several GOP lawmakers warned that they would not approve the $348.5 million the is seeking for climate change assistance or President Obama’s pledge of $3 billion over four years to the international Green Climate Fund.”

Lawmakers also pointed to fiscal constraints when asked about aid to Vanuatu for Cyclone Pam. Several made the erroneous assumption that the United States is largely footing the bill for that country’s relief effort.

“We would like to help out wherever we can, but the United States should not be considered the only helpful actor around the globe,” Perry said.

“There is so much more that we can be doing, but yet how much more should we be doing and not the world community?” Yoho said.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) declined to speak about the destruction in Vanuatu, saying he was rushing to another meeting. Granger, asked if the United States is doing enough, said, “I don’t now how much is enough. I just know that with the constraints we’ve got, it will be very difficult.”(ClimateWire)

Connecting Vanuatu to Climate Change: Lived Experience, Science, and Denialism

When it comes to linking climate change to Cyclone Pam, there has been a mixture of responses wrapped up in devastation, science, and political denialism.

Vanuatu’s President Baldwin Lonsdale, who was attending a UN Disaster Risk conference when the cyclone hit, connected it to climate change: “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.”

Scientifically, we cannot attribute a single event to climate variations of any kind. However, recent reports and statements have given us language to talk about the effects of climate change on South Pacific tropical cyclones — and even more specifically– on Cyclone Pam.

According to MIT professor and Tropical Storm expert Kerry Emanuel, “While Pam and Haiyan, as well as other recent tropical cyclone disasters, cannot be uniquely pinned on global warming, they have no doubt been influenced by natural and anthropogenic climate change and they do remind us of our continuing vulnerability to such storms.”(Real Climate). Australia’s Climate Council also released a briefing report highlighting how climate change exacerbated the impacts of Cyclone Pam.

On the other end of the spectrum reside climate denialists. In response to President Lonsdale’s attribution of Cyclone Pam to climate change, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) told ClimateWire, “That’s baloney. There’s been cyclones destroying cities for thousands of years. People have tried to politicize disasters and the sufferings of others. I’m not talking about him [Lonsdale], but about people who have left this thought in his mind, and it has done a great disservice to humanitarianism.”

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), who has denied human-caused climate change, and instead referred to such events as “natural occurrences,” said to ClimateWire, “I just don’t think [assistance for climate change impacts] is what we need to be spending our money on. I’m on the opposite side of the climate issue.”

Moving Forward to Address Loss and Damage from Climate Change

The international community’s response to Vanuatu’s devastation following Cyclone Pam shows that there is no set infrastructure or procedure by which to respond to these natural disasters, which were likely caused and aggravated by climate change.

The closest mechanism our international community has developed is the Loss and Damage protocol, which is still in its early stages within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change sessions. Perhaps most significantly, Loss and Damage could provide a compensatory mechanism, through which countries who have disproportionately contributed to climate change provide reparations for loss and damage caused by climate change.

However, the UNFCCC’s inability to produce meaningful (legally-binding) and timely action on climate change, in combination with developed countries long history of resistance in taking full responsibility and accountability for climate change resulting from their for-profit industries and consumption, may undermine progress and traction in the Loss and Damage Protocol.

Nonetheless Saleem Huq, Director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development, believes that Cyclone Pam may support countries most vulnerable to climate change in negotiating for the Loss and Damage agreement. “This is what they predicted, this is what they said would happen, and it’s happening now,” Huq said to ClimateWire. “This will certainly bolster their stand.”

It is both frustrating and enraging to see the U.S. GOP – in particular, Republican Representatives— eschew responsibility for these disasters. The U.S. offered a scant $100,000 for this disaster, which was most likely aggravated by climatic changes its for-profit industries propelled. In a larger context, the Republican Party’s proposed fiscal budget drastically cuts climate-related aid (and aid in several other sectors serving low-income communities), in their attempt to reduce the public debt to 55 percent of GDP by 2025. All the while managing to find funds through the House’s budget proposal to continue growing the budget for the military’s overseas operations (another major contributor to climate change). More recently, after President Obama pledged cutting the United States emissions between 26 to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell subsequently undermined his pledge. On the same day President Obama announced the US’s pledge, Sen. McConnell released a statement telling other countries to “proceed with caution” in making their own pledges, as the US was unlikely to meet its own reduction commitments.

Climate change does not abide to national boundaries. While some countries are more historically responsible for extracting and consuming fossil fuels, and profiting from all fossil fuel based industries, all around the world countries — particularly developing countries — shoulder the impacts. Logically, morally, and ethically, it is our responsibility as an international community to provide funding that is preemptive and invested in the long-term thriving of communities. It is time to support, solidify, and  enact international mechanisms that enforce these moral and logical responsibilities.


Article written by Cecilia Pineda in solidarity with Vanuatu, and all other countries that are most affected by climate change yet least responsible for causing it.

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