A powerful storm that ripped across four Pacific Island nations this week raises an uncomfortable question for humanitarians on coronavirus lockdown: how do you respond to a disaster during a global pandemic? Cyclone Harold—the first Category-5 storm to make landfall in the Pacific since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic in March—tore through parts of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga. The storm swept 27 people on a ferry overboard in the Solomon Islands; parts of Vanuatu's northern islands saw extensive damage; some 6,000 people were evacuated in parts of Fiji; and Tonga's 'Eua Island was "devastated," the government said.
In an independence referendum that drew record numbers to the polls Nov. 4, voters in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia voted 56 to 44 percent to remain a French territory. The referendum marked a major milestone in an independence movement that has spanned decades. Political leaders initially agreed in 1988 to hold a vote on independence after a 10-year period of economic and social development. Subsequent negotiations extended the deadline to the end of the 2014-2018 session of the New Caledonian Congress. The final details were settled this past spring when legislators adopted eight criteria to determine who would be eligible to participate in the referendum.
The 18 member states of the Pacific Islands Forum held their 49th summit in Nauru, issuing a statement (PDFi) Sept. 6 asserting that "climate change presents the single greatest threat to the livelihood, security and wellbeing of Pacific people." The leaders "reaffirmed the importance of immediate urgent action to combat climate change" and committed "to ensure effective progress on Pacific priorities with regards to the Paris Agreement" through the development of a guide. Leaders at the Forum also urged all countries to comply fully with their commitments to mitigate emissions, "including through the development and transfer of renewable energy," within their committed timeframes. The leaders also "called on the United States to return to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change."
Authorities in Fiji are assessing the extent of the damage after Cyclone Winston brought winds of over 200 miles per hour, torrential rains and waves of up to 40 feet (12 meters). The storm—said to be the strongest tropical cyclone ever measured in the Southern Hemisphere—destroyed hundreds of homes and cut electricity lines. There are reports of entire villages flattened. At least five people are dead by initial counts. The government has imposed a nationwide curfew and 30-day "state of national disaster," giving expanded powers to police to arrest people without a warrant. The storm moved westward after making landfall Feb. 20 in the north of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu. It changed direction at the last minute, sparing the capital Suva the full force of its winds. (BBC News, Slate, Feb. 20)
In what UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon hailed as a "truly a historic moment," world leaders gathering in Paris for the COP 21 climate summit on Dec. 12 approved an accord aiming to limit global warming to 1.5 C—an improvement over the current national committments (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs in technocratic jargon) which only mandate a limit of 3 C. Some international campaigners are claiming victory. "The wheel of climate action turns slowly, but in Paris it has turned," said Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo. "This deal puts the fossil-fuel industry on the wrong side of history... That single number, and the new goal of net zero emissions by the second half of this century, will cause consternation in the boardrooms of coal companies and the palaces of oil-exporting states." (AFP, NYT)