For Fijians, climate change is not some abstract notion. Fiji is on the front lines, both as an island nation and, a leader in placing the reduction of carbon emissions atop the global agenda.
And not a moment too soon.
Since 1993, Fiji has recorded a 6 millimeter (0.2 inch) increase in its sea level per year. This has resulted in saltwater intrusion and coastal flooding which have made portions of the its landmass uninhabitable or unusable. Saltwater intrusion not only destroys farmland, but forces communities to migrate to safer ground. For example on Viti Levu, in 2012, residents of Vunidogoloa became the first residents of the island to begin relocating due to rising tides, diminished arable land and intensifying floods.
The impact of more powerful weather systems has wreaked havoc on the Fiji Islands. In February 2016, Cyclone Winston pummeled the archipelago resulting in 44 fatalities. The storm destroyed homes, uprooted families and wreaked havoc on the nation’s sugar crop. With 185 mile per hour winds (including 200 Mph gusts) Winston was Fiji’s worst recorded natural disaster. Damages were estimated at $1.4 billion, about a third of the nation’s GDP.
Climate change has also threatened the health of Fiji’s rich system. Coral reefs are more vulnerable to ocean acidification, a result of carbon pollution that increases the ocean’s acidity.
Rising sea levels paired with warmer temperatures also encourage the frequency of lethal food and water-borne diseases among the local population. Recent examples include a drought-induced outbreak of diarrheal disease in 2011, post-flood leptospirosis in 2012 and a Dengue Fever outbreak in 2013.
Landing a Counterpunch—Enter Frank Bainimarama
It is not the nature of Fijians to rest on their laurels and let others decide their political or existential future.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Frank Banimarama, Fiji was the first country to ratify the Paris Agreement and held the prestigious position of President of COP23 the global climate summit held in in Bonn, Germany. (COP23 denotes the 23rd annual Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). As COP23 President Bainimarama was catapulted into an international spokesman calling on the international community to commit more resources to curb the carbon emissions and other activities that cause climate change. In no uncertain terms the Prime Minister called on government, civil society, and business to engage in a “Grand Coalition” to combat climate change.
Under the PM, Fiji has pledged to transition to renewable energy by 2030 and has adopted a reforestation policy to store carbon. Working in tandem with the Global Environment Facility, the Green Climate Fund and several United Nations agencies, Fiji is actively monitoring and responding to climate-related risks.
In this vein, he has offered to give permanent refuge to the people of Kiribati and Tuvalu should their countries become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels. Already there are climate change refugees in Fiji and unless trends reverse, their numbers will undoubtedly grow in the coming years.
Long after COP23 fades into memory, Bainimarama will no doubt continue to remind the world of the clear and present danger that climate change represents.
In a recently quote from AFP he said, “The science on climate change is settled, to say otherwise is tantamount to arguing that the Earth is flat…those who… ignore pt the science are being craven, irresponsible and selfish.”
FijiGuide will continue to cover the issue to climate change and its impact on Fiji. Stay tuned.