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Despite Taking Lead on Global Stage, Fiji Pays Price for Climate Crisis

Island nation was already struggling to adapt to rising oceans and increasing temperatures

A remote Fijian village is photographed from the air during a surveillance flight conducted by the New Zealand Defence Force following Cyclone Winston. (Photo: Reuters/NZ Defense Force)

Less than a week after Fiji became the first of 195 countries to formally sign onto the Paris climate deal, the island nation felt the devastating impacts of global warming first-hand when it was battered by a Category 5 cyclone—among the biggest ever to hit the Southern Hemisphere.

According to news reports, "monster" Cyclone Winston, which hit over the weekend, brought winds of over 200 miles per hour, torrential rain, and waves of up to 40 feet. A month-long state of disaster has been declared, while Oxfam in the Pacific regional director Raijeli Nicole said communication blackspots were making it very hard to assess damage and determine the scale of the response required.

The Independent has a video of the storm's impact:

Twenty-one people have been confirmed dead so far, but as Nicole noted: "Given the intensity of the storm and the images we have seen so far, there are strong concerns that the death toll won’t stop climbing today and that hundreds of people will have seen their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed."

There's something in the air...

More than a few experts were quick to link Cyclone Winston to human-caused global warming, saying the extreme weather event was "more painful evidence" of climate change:

Its low-lying coral atolls make the frontline nation "especially vulnerable to sea level rise," Weather Underground meteorologists Jeff Masters and Bob Henson noted on Friday:

Storm surge from Winston is of particular concern for Fiji, where sea level rise and coastal erosion have already begun to displace people. The nation includes more than 300 islands; some are volcanic in origin, while many of the smaller islands are low-lying coral atolls especially vulnerable to sea level rise. The nation has already assisted one small village, Vunidogolo, in moving to a new location as part of its climate change adaptation program. More than 30 other Fijian villages have been identified as vulnerable.

Although it represents only a tiny share of the world’s fossil fuel emissions, Fiji is doing its part to reduce them. On February 12, Fiji became the first nation on Earth to ratify the global pact on reducing greenhouse emissions that was hammered out at the UN Conference of Parties meeting (COP15) last December in Paris. Fiji has pledged to boost the renewable share of its electricity generation from around 60% in 2013 to near 100% by 2030. Together with energy efficiency improvements, this will reduce Fiji’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in 2030 by roughly 30% compared to a business-as-usual approach.

Slate staff writer Eric Holthaus pointed out this inherent irony over the weekend. "Fiji is responsible for just 0.04 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions," he wrote, "and the confluence of this week’s events there highlights the brutal injustice posed by a warming world."

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