Yeb Sano: Vanuatu’s grief is a warning of climate impacts to come

Senior Philippines climate official says Cyclone Pam underlines need for effective extreme weather compensation scheme 

An estimated 45,000 school-aged children have no access to education as a result of Cyclone Pan 9Pic: UNICEF)

An estimated 45,000 school-aged children have no access to education as a result of Cyclone Pan (Pic: UNICEF)

By Ed King

Tropical storms last for a few hours but they can leave a legacy of fear, trauma and destruction.

Little over 48 hours after Cyclone Pam hit the Pacific Island of Vanuatu, many of the country’s citizens are still unaccounted for.

Others are stranded on remote islands, compelled to drink seawater and shelter under the remains of their broken homes.

Yeb Sano knows how they feel. In late 2013 when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, the country’s climate commissioner had family in some of the worst affected areas.

With the fate of some of his relations uncertain, he told fellow diplomats at the UN climate summit he was attending that Haiyan had to be a turning point for these negotiations.

Back home, as the winds and rains hit, communications were lost and power disappeared. For some it took weeks for loved ones to be reunited, possessions reclaimed. Over 7000 died.

“After the storm it is fear that strikes hearts and even the slightest drizzle will make children cry,” Sano says.

“That is what happens in the aftermath of something like this and for months to come. What I can imagine with Vanuatu is people feeling helpless and running low on food, supplies.

“It is gloomy and while every country would have differing experiences after devastating events I can only imagine and truly relate with what they are going through.”

Climate links

Tropical storms have hit Pacific islands for time immemorial. But what Sano and other climate change campaigners fear is that they are becoming more frequent.

The evidence is limited. In 2013 a UN panel of scientific experts said it had “low confidence” in future projections of tropical storms, but an increase in intense storm activity was “more likely than not”.

But a 20cm rise in global sea levels since the 19th century does place many low-lying islands at greater risk from tidal surges flooding coastal villages.

For Sano, the severity of Haiyan and Pam – branded the worst storm to hit Vanuatu in living memory – are not isolated events. “These are setting a trend,” he says.

“Future losses will be massive and tremendous as we are already starting to see, and it’s a consequence of the failure of developed countries not fighting this over the past 10 years.”

That perceived failure has led to many developing countries to call for a UN mechanism to compensate them for irreparable damage linked to climate change.

Comment: Exclusion of ‘loss and damage’ would make Paris deal useless

Known as loss and damage, it has twice nearly led to the collapse of negotiations on a global climate pact, in 2013 and 2014.

Poorer nations see this as their right, given they did not contribute to the high levels of warming greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Rich nations, fearing the huge bill they could face, say individual events cannot be easily attributed to climate change.

That last argument is looking increasingly flimsy as scientists edge towards honing their attribution skills.

As RTCC revealed late last year, two Oxford University experts, Myles Allen and Rachel James, are busy working out if climate change has “loaded the dice” in favour of some extreme weather events.

They’re some way off being able to determine whether an individual storm was definitively a result of global warming, but they are starting to calculate whether it would be more likely.

That clarity doesn’t necessarily help the politics and it is still unclear if loss and damage will form part of the proposed 2015 Paris climate deal. But pressure is building.

Report: Disaster talks ‘could break down’ under weight of climate politics

UN officials at disaster risk reduction talks in Sendai this week say 87% of natural disasters can be linked to climate change. They estimate the total disaster bill to run to over US$250 billion a year.

Houses can be rebuilt, boats repaired, fields re-sown.

But the dead cannot be brought back to life. A lost education be hard to catch up. Sano points out that many people move back into the danger zones because they have nowhere else to go.

Over a year on from Haiyan many Filipino communities are still scarred from the experience.

Sano saw this at close quarters when he walked through the affected areas at the end of 2014, on a fundraising “march for the climate”.

“A human death is a human death. People who lost loved ones… it is a tremendous trauma for them. Losing your home is an experience that will only be very painful and hard to rise up from,” he says.

“If you are on your own it is almost close to impossible to pick up the pieces if you don’t receive anything [help], especially, if you have no regular livelihood.”

For many in the Philippines the response to Haiyan was to move somewhere safer, further from the waves and the violent seas.

That’s not an option if you live on Vanuatu. The whole archipelago is exposed. While aid is now arriving, no-one can say this won’t happen again, or that next time it won’t be worse.

Pictures of smashed trees, roofless homes and small children wandering aimlessly through the detritus of their lives will make vulnerable countries even more determined to secure a loss and damage settlement in Paris, Sano says.

Without that, and tougher efforts to slow the effects of climate change, “it leaves you to question your ability to develop,” he adds.

Read more on: Living | | |