Climate change brings disasters on steroids

Editor’s Note: Nonresident Senior Fellow Jane McAdam says that climate change-related displacement is happening now and band aid solutions to natural disasters are simply not enough. The time is now to be proactive, because the cost of inaction will be much higher. This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald and on

Australia’s $5 million contribution to address the devastating impacts of Cyclone Pam is a much-needed and welcome act. But remedial responses like this are not enough. Governments must also develop more proactive tools to help mitigate the impacts of disasters in the first place, including the displacement of people from their homes.

Climate change-related displacement is happening now. It is not just a future phenomenon. Reportedly 45 per cent of Tuvalu’s population has been displaced by Cyclone Pam. More frequent and more intense extreme weather events are consistent with climate change: disasters become disasters on steroids. While history shows that many Pacific island communities are highly resourceful and resilient in the face of adversity, traditional coping mechanisms are being challenged by what the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator has called the “new normal”. 

The people most affected are generally the most vulnerable already – the poor, living in environmentally precarious parts of the country, without the social networks or resources to get out of harm’s way early. By way of comparison, Australian tourists caught up in Cyclone Pam have emerged relatively unscathed. They have the financial resources to shelter in more solid, permanent structures, and to get out of the country in the aftermath.  Most locals do not have that option. 

Humanitarian relief in such cases is essential. It enables NGOs and UN partner agencies on the ground to provide urgent assistance, such as food, temporary shelter and medical care. It can also affect whether, and how quickly, people can return home and rebuild. But bandaid solutions like this are not enough. As the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands told the Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement, “if we fail to plan, we plan to fail”. 

First, we need to enhance disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. These help to build resilience in communities by raising awareness, increasing preparedness, and building response capacity.  The systematic integration of disaster risk reduction measures means that if disaster strikes, people may avoid displacement altogether – or be displaced for a much shorter period of time. 

Second, we need to prepare for displacement. The Pacific’s geography means that people cannot flee across a border after a disaster. However, if they continue to feel vulnerable over time, they might try to move before the next disaster strikes. Current legal frameworks neither facilitate nor support cross-border movement in these circumstances.  Claims by Pacific islanders to be “climate refugees” have failed. 

One option might be for countries like Australia and New Zealand to create international evacuation plans that could be triggered on the request of affected States. This would provide a more controlled and predictable response that would provide temporary safety and until people can return home. It could be similar to the assistance we gave Kosovar refugees in the 1990s.  However, we would need to ensure that more permanent humanitarian solutions were available for those who could not return.

Third, we need to enhance voluntary migration opportunities so that people can move before disaster strikes. This does not necessarily involve expanding our annual immigration intake, but using existing migration categories more cleverly.  For example, the Kiribati–Australia Nursing Initiative gives students from Kiribati the opportunity to study nursing in Australia.  When they graduate, they can apply for a skills-based visa that allows them to stay and work here as permanent residents. This helps to address Australia’s nursing shortage, while also building skills and financial security for Kiribati.  It provides a risk management strategy for those who move, as well as for those who remain at home and benefit from remittances.

The extent to which migration can function as a positive form of adaptation, rather than as a sign of vulnerability, will depend on the laws and policies put in place now. Well-planned strategies can lessen the likelihood of later humanitarian emergencies and displacement. As the UK Government Office for Science has noted, the cost of inaction will be higher than the cost of implementing measures to reduce displacement, both in financial and human terms. This week’s UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan could therefore not be more timely.