By Gregory Poling
The last half of March provided troubling examples of the toll increasingly frequent extreme weather events will take on countries in the twenty-first century, and particularly on small-island developing states. But it also underscored the increasing international attention being paid to the threat of climate change, the need for better disaster management and prevention, and the growing commitment to make 2015 a landmark year on both fronts. President Barack Obama has committed the United States to leading the effort to find a binding international commitment on climate change, and March showed why Washington must follow through.
Cyclone Pam, one of the strongest storms ever seen in the South Pacific, slammed into Vanuatu on March 13, wiping out virtually the entire national agricultural crop and years of economic development overnight. The nation is expected to be dependent on emergency relief from the international community for months to come, and could take years to recover. The storm also pummeled nearby Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. Then, beginning March 27, Typhoon Maysak, another category five storm, lashed the vast archipelago of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), causing massive damage before moving on to the Philippines.
Cyclone Pam garnered worldwide headlines and attracted a rapid international response, including from the United States. The effects of Typhoon Maysak should hit closer to home for the United States. FSM and the United States are joined by a Compact of Free Association under which Washington provides development assistance, special access for Micronesian citizens to the United States, and protection against external threats. FSM president Manny Mori has already said that he hopes for considerable assistance from the United States under the compact—something that Washington is hurrying to provide.
Both storms should also be a painful reminder to the United States that, as a Pacific nation, it is directly threatened by climate change and the increasingly violent weather it causes. Typhoon Maysak could easily have made a direct hit on Guam or the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands—U.S. territories not far from FSM and home to more than 200,000 U.S. citizens and nationals combined. A storm of Cyclone Pam’s strength could someday strike American Samoa or Hawaii, and probably will. Mitigating risks from such extreme weather events are not just a matter of responsibility to small-island developing states; they are a direct national interest.
That is why it is so important that the United States was one of 187 UN member states to adopt the new Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan on March 18. The agreement—the first major one in the post–2015 UN development agenda—set seven global targets to be reached by 2030: substantially reducing (1) global disaster mortality, (2) the number of people affected, (3) economic losses, and (4) damage to infrastructure and basic services, while at the same time boosting (5) the number of countries with risk reduction strategies, (6) international cooperation, and (7) access to early warning systems and disaster risk information.
The new framework is an important step toward mitigating the inevitable damage that increasingly frequent and violent extreme weather will cause this century. It is also indicative that the international community is rousing to confront the danger. And most importantly, it lends momentum to achieve the greater prize later this year—a binding international agreement to combat climate change.
The Obama administration has committed to reaching such an agreement when world leaders meet under the auspices of the United Nations in Paris in December. The efforts the United States and others made last year to reduce emissions, and the emerging consensus among both developed and developing nations that an agreement is necessary, has expectations for Paris running high. In the months to come, U.S. officials must work to strengthen that consensus, do all they can to bring remaining deniers on board, and work with like-minded nations, both developed and developing, to cobble together the parameters within which a successful treaty can be negotiated.
Mr. Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.