Small island states and environmentalists say the devastating cyclone that lashed Fiji on Saturday illustrates why the world must get serious about helping climate-vulnerable countries cope with warming.

Cyclone Winston was the most damaging storm ever to hit the small Pacific nation. The death toll was at 36 yesterday. Fiji’s representatives spent yesterday assessing the damage and securing aid.

“The government of Fiji’s first concern is to provide humanitarian emergency assistance, food, water, sanitation and shelter to people in dire need,” said the country’s U.N. ambassador, Peter Thomson, last night. “This process has begun, and we are working in close coordination with humanitarian partners to deliver the assistance required.”

Meanwhile, the climate community was quick to tie the storm to warming wrought by emissions from the developed world.

“Though we can’t connect a direct relationship to climate change, scientists will tell you that warmer temperatures and warmer water produces stronger storms,” Ambassador Ahmed Sareer, the Maldives’ U.N. representative and chairman of the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), said in an email to ClimateWire. “For now, let’s call this the year’s first reminder of the urgent need to implement the Paris Agreement and support the decision on loss and damage with real resources.”

Secretary Emmanuel de Guzman of the Philippine Climate Change Commission, who heads the Climate Vulnerable Forum, said Saturday’s catastrophe was “another painful reminder of why global action on climate change is so urgent and vital.”

Both coalitions noted that while poor countries like their island states have done little to cause man-made warming, they are on track to bear the brunt of it, facing a one-two punch from rising sea levels and more frequent and severe storms.

“We’re expecting all countries to collaborate to safeguard our people by keeping warming to the minimum, which means living up to the 1.5 degrees limit enshrined in the Paris Agreement,” Guzman said.

Paris ‘not strong’ on compensation

Small island nations like Fiji advocated passionately for ambitious efforts to reduce emissions during talks that led to the landmark U.N. climate deal in Paris last December. Four days before it was hit by Winston, Fiji became the first country in the world to ratify the deal.

Island states initiated the “high-ambition coalition” heading into Paris, which succeeded in attaching aspirational language to the deal calling for the world to keep long-term warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—an extremely challenging goal that scientists say would avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

They also insisted that any successful agreement address not only mitigation and adaptation, but also loss and damage—compensating poor countries that suffer irreparable loss due to warming. And they demanded that it create a facility to help populations that will be displaced by warming as the century progresses.

But the United States led other developed nations in refusing to accept any language that would open the door for liability. Secretary of State John Kerry told parties at the summit that “Congress will never buy into” language that creates a legal remedy. Such a provision would doom the deal in the United States, he said.

Climate aid of any kind is unpopular with Republican majorities in Congress. When Kerry defended the State Department’s fiscal 2016 budget yesterday before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he was questioned sharply about the administration’s proposal to spend $1.3 billion for the Global Climate Change Initiative (E&E Daily, Feb. 24). Committee member John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) characterized it as sending “taxpayer dollars overseas to international bureaucrats in the name of climate change, rather than dealing with these issues at home.”

Instead, the agreement included the outline of a loss and damage agenda, calling for the introduction of early warning systems, emergency preparedness and other disaster readiness assistance to nations together with an insurance-based approach for losses. Details were left to a later time, but Paris extended a mechanism created two years previously at the U.N. summit in Warsaw, Poland.

But some observers said yesterday that what was agreed to in Paris isn’t enough to protect poor and vulnerable nations, and events like Winston demonstrate that fact.

“The Paris agreement is not strong on loss and damage,” said Karen Orenstein, who works on climate finance issues for Friends of the Earth. “I think this gives urgency to the need to actually have real money put into loss and damage and realize that this actually has to come on top of real finance for mitigation and adaptation.”

The collective $100 billion in climate aid that rich countries pledged in Copenhagen, Denmark, six years ago—and that was affirmed as a floor in Paris—does not scratch the surface of what will be needed to make countries like Fiji whole as climate change progresses, she said. And while developed countries say a large portion of those funds will come from the private sector, most of those dollars will go to renewable energy projects in the developing world. They won’t go to compensate islanders who saw their livelihoods washed away by rising tides and more frequent storms.

Doreen Stabinsky of the College of the Atlantic said developing countries got the short end of the stick in Paris.

“From my perspective, these countries paid a very high price to get some language on risk transfer and displacement—far less than what they had been demanding,” she said.

Record cyclone hints at coming damage

While the United States got what it wanted—an explicit exclusion of any liability language that put the issue to rest forever—poor countries only succeeded in ensuring that loss and damage would have a home under the convention, she said.

And the agreement’s language to create a task force to come up with recommendations to deal with displacement is “a far cry” from the coordination facility that climate-vulnerable countries seek, she said.

“The Paris outcome clearly showed who has the power to define the outcome of these sorts of agreements—it’s not the most vulnerable developing countries, no matter what moral weight they carry, or how many ‘biggest storm ever recorded’ events demolish their homes, and livelihoods, and lives,” she said.

Representatives of the AOSIS group will meet in New York City later this week to look for ways to show solidarity with Fiji in the aftermath of Winston, said Michael Crocker, a spokesman for the group.

Orenstein said the group should use the opportunity to propose new funding mechanisms to support compensation for loss and damage.

“This is the chance to make the connection between the damage caused by climate change—irreparable damage—and the need to have the funds to pay for it, and the connection between people losing their lives and their livelihoods and at some point their actual, physical countries,” she said.

Annaka Peterson of Oxfam America said that Winston demonstrated the importance of early warning systems in saving lives. People seem to have heeded government warnings to stay inside in advance of the storm, she said.

“Looking ahead at what success looks like for the [loss and damage] mechanism, we need to make sure that all countries have early warning systems in place and have good response plans to prevent some of the most devastating effects of extreme weather events,” she said. “We also need to make sure that the resources and support the people of Fiji need gets there quickly.”

The United Nations has begun providing humanitarian aid to Fiji, and multilateral lending organizations said they would come to Fiji’s aid.

Min Zhu, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said “an IMF team stands ready to visit Fiji at short notice to help the government assess the macroeconomic situation and policies and determine any potential financing needs and assistance.”

The World Bank touted its climate-related projects in the Pacific region and pledged further assistance to Fiji.

“This is reported to be the strongest cyclone ever to hit Fiji and is yet another reminder of the increasing vulnerability Pacific Island countries face due to climate change and natural disasters,” said Franz Drees-Gross, World Bank country director for Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific islands.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500