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By Frank Bainimarama
As the world rang in a new year, for Oceania, the images that marked the beginning of the decade weren’t ones of champagne and fireworks. Instead we were left with photos and headlines that merit not celebration, but mourning.
The skies of Sydney were stained an eerie blood-red by apocalyptic bushfires, as desperate Australians gathered by the ocean,waiting to be rescued by boat – conditions that threaten to worsen still. Glaciers in New Zealand and were covered by a brown dusting of ash that had travelled thousands of kilometres across the Pacific. And in Fiji, we were left reeling by rushing floodwaters and howling, gale-force winds.
Just two days after Christmas, Tropical Cyclone Sarai swept over our nation, cutting the holiday season short as Fijian families battened down for yet another storm – an all-too-familiar pattern that, throughout the past decade, has wreaked an immense toll on our nation’s economy, forced us to relocate seaside villages to higher ground, and cut short the lives of far too many of our people.
Yet even as we continue to assess the damage of immense wind and flooding here at home, Fiji stands in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Australia as they reel from a catastrophe that, with every passing news story and social media post, continues to leave the world in shock. Australia has always been a kind neighbour in assisting Fiji through the worst of our climatic events; and while we may lack the same resources to return the favour in times of crisis like this, Australians should know that Fijians will carry your suffering in our hearts as we work to push the world for more ambitious climate action.
In the climate change arena, when delegations from around the world gather in conference rooms to negotiate the best path forward to ensure a habitable planet for future generations, we need to be delicate when referencing any attribution between individual disasters – like Tropical Cyclone Sarai or the Australian bushfires – and global temperature rise. This is because, while the climate science is crystal clear, global climate politics remain murky, mired in fear of disrupting the status quo.
Nevertheless, I’m not one to mince words; and, to be frank, I’m exhausted by the lack of accountability that comes from this type of tip-toeing. We don’t need to be scientists to know in our hearts that something is very, very wrong here. We know that things are getting worse. As the world gets hotter and drier, fires will continue to burn, landscapes and critical ecosystems will continue to be turned to ash, lives will continue to be lost.
Unlike in our international negotiations, firefighters and rescue workers don’t have the luxury of sitting at conference tables when they are forced to risk their lives to contain these kinds of disasters. It is their sense of adrenaline-fuelled urgency, and their patriotic bravery to protect their homeland, that should inspire the world to act – and it is precisely that sense of heroic duty nations of the world must bring to the table.
With every additional degree of average global warming, the scale and frequency of wildfires will increase exponentially, as will the intensity of heat-driven tropical cyclones. As we are now understanding more acutely than ever before, the maximum threshold for global average temperature rise must not exceed 1.5C – a limit that serves to interests of all countries, especially those at our southern latitudes.
All across the Pacific, our prayers are with Australia, particularly those victims who have witnessed hell on Earth, and with those first responders who have so bravely fought back the flames of this horrific disaster. But prayers alone will not turn back the tides of the climate crisis facing the world; for that, we need meaningful action.
While 2020 began bleak in our fight against climate change – and was ominously foreshadowed by the particularly disappointing outcomes of COP25 at the end of 2019 that, as high emitters dug in their heels, lacked real ambition – we must not be left feeling defeated.
For 2020 will also bring with it an immense opportunity to take bold action to curb the scale and extent of the climate crisis. The international community will gather at COP26 in Glasgow later this year in what will be a key milestone in our collective history – a critical opportunity to make the meaningful commitments needed to radically and systematically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Let us not take the privileges we have enjoyed for decades for granted. Our children and grandchildren deserve the chance to dive our reefs to see their great beauty rather than the bleached remains of an acidic ocean. They deserve to see koalas roam in their natural habitats, rather than drive through a charred landscape and ash. They deserve clean drinking water, to live in the communities where they’ve resided for generations, and to live not in fear of nature’s wrath, but in harmony with its beauty.
If we choose inaction, we will only be fanning the flames of this crisis for future generations. But if we instead choose a different path, and fully commit to achieving net zero emissions, we can still win this fight for our lives.
Frank Bainimarama is the prime minister of Fiji
This article was first published the Guardian Australia.
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