Three days removed from Cyclone Winston's record-breaking winds and rain, Fiji is now assessing the unprecedented damage caused by Saturday's superstorm. At least 29 people in the country are confirmed dead, and entire villages must now be re-built after enduring a direct hit from the Category 5 tropical cyclone.
Winston's trail of destruction is another painful reminder that many of the world's smallest countries are among those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Rising sea levels caused by global warming have already begun displacing coastal villagers in Fiji, and scientists predict that low-lying island nations like Kiribati could be entirely underwater by century's end.
Meanwhile, the oft-repeated prediction that climate change will lead to increasingly severe tropical storms appears to be coming true. With sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, and gusts surpassing 200 miles per hour, Cyclone Winston became the strongest storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. And this milestone comes only four months after Hurricane Patricia's shattered wind-speed records in the Western Hemisphere, offering further evidence that warmer ocean temperatures and stronger El Niño patterns are fueling ever-more-ferocious weather anomalies.
If climate change proceeds unhindered, Fiji faces a bleak future of mass displacement and deepening poverty.
Of course, even these developments probably won't sway the science-deniers in Congress who still insist that climate change is just a big hoax (see: Senator Jim Inhofe and the Capitol snowball rebuttal). But as faux debate continues in the United States, Fiji's flattened villages and crippled infrastructure offer a vivid illustration of what's at stake for the world's most vulnerable populations. Across the 300-odd islands that make up Fiji's archipelago, the cyclone destroyed homes, knocked out electricity, closed schools, and inflicted untold damages on the country's sugar crop—one of the cornerstones of Fiji's economy. "We haven't seen so much damage in any of the past cyclones, not in my lifetime," a resident in the Ba district told Reuters. "It looks like a different country, it doesn't look like Fiji."
Over the weekend, Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama declared a 30-day state of emergency and pledged to direct millions of dollars toward recovery efforts. But re-building Fiji in the short term might prove simpler than keeping the country above water for good. According to a climate report published by Fiji's government in 2012, global warming is expected to cause seawater levels to rise by as much as 48 centimeters by 2100, a trend that threatens many of the country's coastal villages. In 2012, Vunidogoloa became the first such village to begin relocating to higher ground, and soon dozens of other Fijian communities will be forced to follow in its footsteps.
Other climate threats to Fiji's society and economy include higher rates of disease as average temperatures rise; increasingly destructive storms as oceans get warmer and weather patterns become more severe; and disruptions to agriculture as the intrusion of saltwater damages existing farmland. On Fiji's main island of Viti Levu, these factors are expected to contribute to economic damages of up to $52 million per year, or roughly four percent of Fiji's gross domestic product, according to a World Bank report from 2000.
In short, if climate change proceeds unhindered, Fiji faces a bleak future of mass displacement and deepening poverty. Or, as Bainimarama explained it ahead of the Paris climate talks: "Unless the world acts decisively in the coming weeks to begin addressing the greatest challenge of our age, then the Pacific, as we know it, is doomed."
Despite this disheartening backdrop, however, Fiji's story does offer a glimmer of hope that climate progress is possible. Over the last five years, the country's democratic government has taken big steps to brace for the impacts of climate change, from investing in resilient food crops to building desalination plants that increase the supply of potable water. The government has also stepped in to help the displaced villagers of Vunidogoloa, reportedly spending $879,000 to build houses, fish ponds, and farms in the new community.
Meanwhile, despite Fiji's small size and minuscule contribution to global carbon emissions, the country has taken the global lead on fighting carbon emissions. As the first nation to formally ratify the Paris climate accord, Fiji has pledged to produce 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, contingent in part on foreign aid, and it has adopted a progressive reforestation policy that aims to sequester carbon in newly planted trees. With ambitious strategies for both climate resilience and clean energy, Fiji is an unlikely model for countries adapting to a new climate reality.
Of course, by themselves, these policies will do little to reduce global carbon emissions, which are driven primarily by world powers like China, Russia, the U.S., and the European Union. (Fiji accounts for only 0.04 percent of total global emissions.) But if Cyclone Winston’s destructive landfall reveals any silver lining, it might be that Fiji’s climate plight—and its anti-warming fight—now have a chance to snag a bit more of the global spotlight. After years of appeals to "save our children's future" (or, even more amorphously, "save our grandchildren's future"), perhaps the here-and-now consequences of climate change in Fiji will be enough to conquer the West's stubborn apathy.
Encouragingly, there's plenty of precedent for Americans rallying behind the cause of an embattled foreign nation in its moment of crisis. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example, concerned citizens contributed more than $500 million to American charities working to provide relief; in 2011, U.S. soldiers and aid workers converged on Japan to support the recovery effort following its catastrophic tsunami; and, last year, the U.S. contributed more than $25 million in government aid to help victims of the magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal.
This time around, it's the people of Fiji who need an assist—and they've even been kind enough to demonstrate exactly how we can help. Step one: Admit that climate change is a real thing. Step two: Do something about it.
Ideally, before too many more islands disappear.
"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.