COVID-19 and Climate Change: We Must Rise to Both Crises

The Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor

In the Pacific we aspire to endurance and sustainability. But progress is difficult to sustain when we face multiple threats that reverse decades of development gains in a matter of hours or days.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens the integrity and prosperity of our Blue Pacific peoples, our communities and our economies. I respect and admire the leadership demonstrated by Members of the Pacific Islands Forum and the global community in their responses to this evolving crisis. Many Forum and other countries have put in place unprecedented measures to protect the health and livelihoods of their people, including major economic stimulus packages.

Last week, Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers agreed to establish the ‘Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19 (PHP-C)’ under the Biketawa Declaration, to collectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The PHP-C is a high-level, political mechanism to ensure regional coordination. It will expedite assistance and cooperation between Pacific countries in preparing for and responding to COVID-19. This includes facilitating the provision of timely and safe medical and humanitarian assistance from regional and international development partners, across our Blue Pacific continent.

It is important to emphasise the interconnectivity between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Cyclone Harold is a clear example that climate change induced disasters can exacerbate the COVID-19 crisis in our Blue Pacific continent. For instance, an already struggling small public system that has closed its borders under COVID-19 may now have to respond to the impacts of Cyclone Harold and the dilemma of opening its borders for external assistance.

Just as our region consolidates its collective effort to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, we must also face the devastating damage in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga and loss of life caused by Cyclone Harold. This climate change exacerbated disaster is a stark reminder that notwithstanding the current threats and impacts of COVID-19, climate change remains the biggest threat facing humanity today. We must not lose sight of this reality. The COVID-19 public health emergency and its ensuing humanitarian and economic fallout offers us a glimpse of what the global climate change emergency can become — if it is left unchecked and if we do not act now.

Two weeks ago, Cyclone Harold killed 27 people in the Solomon Islands who were swept off a ferry transporting people from Honiara to one of the provinces as part of a national COVID-19 evacuation program. Additional deaths were also reported in Vanuatu and Fiji. This is a common and recurring story across our Blue Pacific continent. The human face of climate change exacerbated risks must remain at the forefront of global efforts as we also respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The effects of climate change should no longer be the subject of an acrimonious political debate where lines are drawn in the sand between the left and right of the political spectrum. The science is clear and non-negotiable. The State of the Global Climate in 2019 Report recently released by the World Meteorological Organisation confirms that the world has now surpassed 1.1°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, and that severe cyclones and storms will be the new norm this decade. Without urgent action, it is likely that we will reach the 1.5°C threshold as early as 2030. The impact on small island developing states, as outlined in the 2018 IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C of Global Warming, will be catastrophic.

While this year’s twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties (COP 26) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has been deferred to 2021 due to COVID-19, the global community must not delay the necessary climate action required of us in 2020. We need to limit the global average temperature rise to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to achieve 1.5°C, as Pacific countries have consistently advocated for.

Our Pacific Leaders continue to be pro-active in the global fight against climate change, following the issuing of their strongest ever climate change declaration last year – the Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now. We are now facing COVID-19. Our world is interconnected, and the impacts of transboundary issues are unavoidable. The year 2020 will no doubt test our Blue Pacific’s resilience. What more can we do to remain resilient in the face of the varied threats that we are forced to contend with?

This is an opportunity for our region and for the world at large to consider climate-smart response and recovery measures. Over the months and years to come, economies will recover. This is a chance for nations to plan better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and to shape 21st century economies and societies in ways that are healthy, clean, safe and more resilient.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate change crises are cross-cutting – both require a holistic and whole-of-government approach. They are crises that also require governments to reach out to civil society and the private sector as integrated innovative solutions are needed.

For Pacific Island countries, this is an opportune time to emphasise risk-informed and risk-considered development planning. This will enable our health systems and facilities to withstand the unforeseen pressure from pandemics such as COVID-19 and build the resilience of communities and critical public infrastructure against the impacts of climate change and disasters.

External funding for climate change and disaster resilience must promote cross-sectoral approaches, including support for strengthening resilience in the health sector. Domestically, it is also an appropriate time for countries to consider dedicated risk contingency financing mechanisms.

As we continue the fight against COVID-19 and as we prepare for COP 26, countries must review and strengthen their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and seek to integrate health priorities and financing into their revised NDC commitments, which are expected this year. Now is also the time for countries to develop long-term low emissions development strategies. As one global community, we must use the opportunity of COP 26 for a discussion and commitment on building back climate-smart societies and economies. Governments, businesses, families and individuals across our Blue Pacific, and indeed our great Blue Planet, are facing the most challenging of times. We must not relent nor become complacent.

While the Pacific region emits a negligible fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions, our Blue Pacific is vulnerable and will suffer from the ‘tragedy of the commons’ if industrialised nations do not heed the warnings and curb their emissions to acceptable limits as set out in the Paris Agreement. Climate change is a threat to all of mankind and must be addressed with the urgent attention and resourcing that it deserves. The Pacific Islands Forum will continue to play its part in strengthening the resilience of the Pacific region, our countries, our communities and our peoples. We are all in this together. We will and we must come out stronger.

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