BONN, GERMANY - Unless emissions can be drastically and quickly curbed, efforts by small island nations to adapt to climate change may be in vain, a leader of a group of small island nations said Tuesday.
Hurricanes that hit the Caribbean this year were like nothing seen before, with Hurricane Irma so strong it was picked up by seismic machines that detect earthquake tremors, officials said.
National plans to curb planet-warming emissions, drawn up ahead of the Paris Agreement, currently add up to a projected temperature rise of 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100 — well above the 1 degree Celsius rise already seen.
That may bring climate impacts that are impossible for small island nations to deal with, their leaders warned Tuesday at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn.
If ambition to curb climate remains modest, "have we created a situation for small island developing states where resilience may not necessarily be ... achievable?" asked Janine Felson, Belize ambassador to the United Nations and vice chair of the Alliance of Small Island States.
This year, Hurricane Maria destroyed broad swaths of homes and infrastructure on the Caribbean island of Dominica and stripped its trees bare. Barbuda island was left temporarily uninhabitable when Irma whipped through the region.
"In the Caribbean we're used to hurricanes, but ... for the first time we've seen storms turbocharge and supersize in a matter of hours," she said, speaking on the sidelines of the climate talks.
The storms' impact was "quite apocalyptic," and magnified the acute vulnerability of small island states, Felson said.
Even so, countries — who are now clear on the risks — can take steps to protect themselves by building structures better able to weather storms, and ensuring policies take into account the rapidly changing climate, she said.
"If we do not know the extent of our vulnerability, then we will not change," Felson said.
In Fiji, resilience to the rapidly changing climate is about communities being able to bounce back, rebuild together and become stronger, said Inia Seruiratu, Fiji minister for agriculture, rural and maritime development, and national disaster management.
When Cyclone Winston struck Fiji last year, it caused $100 million in damage to infrastructure alone. Businesses and people's livelihoods suffered, women and girls became more vulnerable, and school records were lost, Seruiratu said.
"We need to put in place response measures that will allow vulnerable countries to cope with such severities," he said.
Small island states also need to look at climate risk insurance schemes, and diversify their economies, he said.
"Our dependence on agriculture and tourism makes our economies particularly vulnerable," he said.
Felson said that international climate funds — including the Green Climate Fund, the Least Developed Countries Fund and the South-South Cooperation Fund on Climate Change — need to better serve the needs of the most vulnerable countries facing climate impacts now.
Countries should also try to tap into the private sector, where much more financing is potentially available, she added.
No fossil fuel
Small island nation campaigners are pushing for countries to immediately phase out existing fossil fuel projects and ban new ones, alongside the overall Paris Agreement commitment to switch to renewable energy by the second half of the century as a way to keep planet-warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
"We are fighting for our future. We want our children to be able to live where we live, to learn about our traditions, our culture," said Billy Cava, Pacific coordinator for 350.org, an activist group, as he described changes in his home territory of New Caledonia.
With new coal mines and coal-fired power plants opening in many parts of the world — including a huge new mine planned in Australia — rapidly phasing out all fossil fuels remains a challenge, experts say.
But the stakes are too high to not push for this change, one campaigner from Fiji said.
"We have to move our plantations inland; we have to build back better after storms," said Alisi Rabukawaqa-Nacewa, the Fiji program coordinator for the Coral Reef Alliance and a member of Pacific Island Represent campaign group.
"But that is not enough. We cannot keep adapting, moving farther and farther inland. What can we do? Build on the top of the mountain, buildings in the sky? No, we need a phase-out of fossil fuels," she said.