in concrete rubble on Kanokupolu Beach, Tonga, leaves beginning to form a blanket, green and gleaming among the dull gray sand fragments. A year after the eruption of Hunga Tong – Hunga Haapai – a volcanic explosion stronger than Krakatoa that caused a surge in global warming, reshaped the ocean floor and destroyed two small islands of the archipelago – the devastation that it caused is still visible. with the rubble of the resorts that once stood here, the renovation work that has yet to begin.
Last year’s disaster, which affected about 84 percent of Tonga’s population, was the Pacific nation’s third natural disaster in five years (it was hit by Category 5 cyclones Gita and Harold in 2018 and 2020), a by-product of global emissions warming the planet. which amplifies storms and droughts, increases wind speeds, and causes sea levels to rise, increasing risk to nearby communities. Ranked 190th on the global carbon footprint (the US is second), Tonga is now one of many countries that are being defeated by those living on distant, richer shores and having to pick up the pieces. Aware of this grim fate for poor countries around the world, conversations about how to fix the injustice have begun, mostly coming down to one solution: climate reparations.
Earlier this year, at the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt, a “historic agreement” was reached, during which it was promised to create a fund to compensate affected countries. Recommendations must be made at Cop28 (takes place in Dubai, ranks 28th in the world in terms of CO emissions).2 emissions) at the end of this year. However, details about how and when they will go into effect remain murky. In their absence, it is difficult to see the proposed UN fund as anything but a hastily applied band-aid designed to appease the bad consciences of rich countries without understanding how to really help the needy or stop the problems that are causing these disasters in the world. first place. As Tonga has found, constant disaster strikes require a lot more planning and prevention efforts than just rushing to clean up.
The country needs help, of course. But it’s not enough for rich countries to write a check. What Tonga (and countries like it) need are crisis managers who have dealt with these kinds of disruptions and know how to rebuild communities and get down to business to make sure the money goes where it’s really needed. In the immediate aftermath of last year’s eruption, some countries quickly sent resources, but they rarely matched a country’s needs, locals told me when I visited last month. Mountains of food, for example, when stores were full, were piled into a line of ships at the jetty in Nuku’alofa, the capital, delaying other, more urgent deliveries, which were then unloaded over several days. Other donated things – trucks, clothes – were not even handed out.
Managing these well-intentioned arrivals was next to impossible as there were so many other pressing issues to be dealt with, such as building blocks for the former residents of Mango and Atata Islands, all of whom were evacuated after their homes were destroyed. The first residents were able to move in just before Christmas. This is the best-case scenario for what climate change offsets will look like, as the new builds address a direct need for which local knowledge and understanding was critical in both planning and implementation. But while these houses are modernizations of the public houses they lived in for 11 months after the bombing, there is no escaping the fact that many now live with 10 family members in two rooms, that they have lost their jobs in resorts that have been destroyed. . if enough action had been taken to combat climate change earlier, they would not feel, as one mother told me, left with nothing. Now their only recourse is to simply hope that another catastrophe doesn’t happen.
The concern, of course, is that this will happen – and soon. The Pacific Ocean is particularly at risk for: Kiribati, an idyllic atoll nation between Hawaii and Australia, has been swallowed up by the sea in recent years at such a rate that it will likely cease to exist in a few decades. Half of all households have been affected by rising sea levels, and six villages have already been completely relocated. The Maldives, Micronesia and Tuvalu are also predicted to disappear within our lifetime due to rapid emissions causing coastal erosion, destruction of plantations (and livelihoods), and severe droughts and floods that they and other vulnerable countries regularly face. Larger and richer islands such as Fiji also cannot be immune from the threat, as 65 percent of their population lives within 5 kilometers of the coast.