Are recent superstorms like Cyclone Pam—which ravaged Vanuatu over the weekend—or Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines last year a result of climate change?
This week, the president of Vanuatu, Baldwin Lonsdale, made the assertion that climate change is contributing to the disaster in Vanuatu.
“This cyclone is a huge setback for the country’s development,” Lonsdale told the Third U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, on March 14. “This is why I am attending this conference and why Vanuatu wants to see a strong new framework on disaster risk reduction, which will support us in tackling the drivers of disaster risk such as climate change.”
Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 storm, had sustained winds of 165 mph, destroyed homes and businesses, and killed at least 24 people last weekend.
In 2013, Vanuatu established a Ministry of Climate Change and Natural Disaster Risk Reduction.
And while some climate scientists have noted that it’s impossible to tie any singular weather event to climate change, it does raise the question: Is Lonsdale right in linking the devastating storm to climate change?
To a certain extent, he is, said Dr. Pamela Chasek, an author and editor of several books on international environmental policy and who is a professor at Manhattan College in New York City.
Lonsdale “is right to make this assertion in my opinion, despite some lack of data in the region and El Niño. Climate change is likely a contributing factor,” she said via email. The storm was likely made more damaging than it would have been 20 to 30 years ago because of ring sea levels caused by climate change, she said.
Storms like Cyclone Pam and Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 10,000 people in the Philippines in late 2013, could become more commonplace. “You can’t forget about the Caribbean and the United States. Just because we had a lighter than average year in 2014, doesn’t mean that we can stop worrying about more Hurricane Sandy, Katrina, and similar events here at home,” Chasek said.
“Multiple scientific studies have said that climate change/global warming is likely to increase the number of and intensify cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons, which means that these storms are becoming more destructive,” said Dr. Chasek.
Lonsdale made the assertions to force intergovernmental action on climate change, as island nations like Vanuatu suffer the brunt of its devastating effects.
“From a political point of view it is very important for Vanuatu to link Cyclone Pam to climate change in order to get international action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and support adaptation efforts,” she said, adding that there is a “long-standing deadlock in climate change negotiations.” As a result, small island nations like Vanuatu are pushing for greater action in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The mayors and municipal leaders from cities in the Asia–Pacific region met in February to talk about a better coordinated response to climate change. “There is a need to do things differently; to be prepared; to innovate; to constantly learn and adapt; and to enact the full spectrum of resilience actions, including disaster prevention, preparedness, response and recovery, for current and projected risks,” they said in a statement.
Lonsdale also pleaded to the world to help the country rebuild, saying “Humanitarian need is immediate, we need it right now,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
However, according to an Associated Press report, scientists that spoke with the news agency have noted that it’s impossible to attribute any one weather event to climate change.
Before the storm hit, Lonsdale repeatedly warned that Vanuatu—located thousands of miles from Australia and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean—is already suffering damaging effects from climate change. He said that the island’s coastal areas are being washed away and it has forced resettlement.
Mike Dieterich, an environmental scientist and the owner of Renew and Sustain—a sustainable consulting firm in Washington, D.C.—agrees that climate change was a contributing factor to Cyclone Pam.
“The president of Vanuatu is correct in making the assertion that climate change is partially to blame,” he said in an email. “The U.N. in 2004 noted that residents of Vanuatu had to retreat back from the coast line due to the sea level rising and are considered the first refuges from climate change. These islands are on the edge of the Pacific tectonic plate and are sinking. This coupled with sea level rising 3–4 mm per year makes Vanuatu more vulnerable to climatic changes.”
As a result, with the warming of the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—a scientific U.N. body—has said the hydrological cycle (or water cycle; the constant movement of water on, above and below the Earth’s surface) will accelerate and intensify, he notes.
“This increases the amount of evaporation, which results in more extreme storms like Cyclone Pam. With the imminent warming of the oceans and atmosphere it is likely that more and often bigger cyclones will hit the Pacific Islands in the future,” Dieterich said.