For islands, Hurricane Irma is the climate change wakeup call

Hurricane Irma
ShutterstockVien Trung and NASA
As countries of every size can battle climate change, Aruba plans to lead in its freedom from fossil fuels.

To most people, islands bring to mind tropical paradises with palm trees surrounded by a turquoise sea. Millions of tourists visit annually to relax and to play on the beautiful beaches. But with the destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, the world also must recognize the vulnerability of the islands to climate change and how quickly they can become scenes of devastation and suffering.

The intensity and destructive force of Irma  perhaps the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic  should come as no surprise.  Scientists have been warning that warmer Atlantic waters are making the hurricanes bearing down on Caribbean islands stronger and wetter. And now, yet another Hurricane  Maria  is pounding the region.

There is no doubt about the long-term danger to small islands from rising sea levels. One day they may be submerged if we do not take action. But there is an insidious damage long before an island slips under the sea.

Changing weather patterns in both the Atlantic and Pacific cause more frequent and more powerful storms that destroy homes and wash out roads. Warmer water degrades coral reefs which help protect islands from storms and the waves that can erode the shore and allow salt water to seep into freshwater supplies. Fish depend on the coral reefs, so without them, the food supply is threatened. Higher temperatures and greater rainfall can increase diseases such as Dengue Fever.

Two years ago, I spoke before the U.N. Security Council on the threat facing small islands and developing states from the effects of climate change, including changing weather patterns. I did so on behalf of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as the prime minister of Aruba, a small island in the Caribbean.

Since I addressed the Security Council, there has been a glimmer of optimism in the fight against climate change. The Paris Climate Accord was signed, and although this was a step forward, much more has to be done — and soon.

While most of the world celebrated the consensus in Paris to limit global warming to a 2 degree Celsius increase, small islands were disappointed — we had pushed to draw the line at 1.5 degrees. The representative from the Marshall Islands stated bluntly that a 2 degree increase is a "small island death warrant." To raise awareness, Caribbean representatives sang and chanted "1.5 to stay alive" throughout the halls. With limited political clout, we did whatever we could to make our point.

One-half degree may sound insignificant, but it means the difference between keeping our homes, cultures and identities intact and or watching them get washed away forever. The devastation from Irma is horrific, but the Pacific islands are lower lying than those in the Caribbean, and the effects of climate change are felt acutely there as well. One such island, Kiribati, with a population of 110,000, has been making plans to relocate the entire population. Imagine the heartbreak if you are a leader who has to plan for the end of your country.

Kiribati has been encouraging its people to move abroad through a program called "migration with dignity." And it has purchased nearly 6,000 acres in Fiji, a larger island 1,000 miles away with a higher elevation, as a possible haven. The world already is struggling to cope with ever-increasing numbers of refugees fleeing war, violence and persecution, but what will happen when climate refugees swell these ranks even further?

Islands are not responsible for climate change, yet they are the first to suffer from its effects and have few resources to defend themselves. Some believe that only large nations can fight climate change. But each country, no matter how small, can contribute to the fight against climate change.

In Aruba we are seeking to transition off fossil fuels by 2020 and to share the lessons in sustainability we learn with other countries, especially small islands. We believe that small islands can be laboratories to demonstrate how this transition can occur in all countries with the appropriate scaling.

It is no longer a scientific issue. It should not be a political issue. It is a moral issue. Each of us is responsible for the welfare of the planet, for one another and for future generations. Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes, I am. We all are. And it is time for the world to heed this wakeup call from Irma and to take action against climate change.