President Donald Trump’s dramatic reversal of domestic and international climate action is about to take a heavy toll on developing territories and countries devastated by Hurricane Irma — something that could play out repeatedly in the years to come as climate change continues to intensify the impact of natural disasters.
Irma, one of the strongest Atlantic Ocean storms ever recorded and a Category 5 hurricane currently headed for the mainland United States, has already done immense damage to a number of small island nations. At least 11 people have been killed so far, with many more placed in extreme danger by the storm and its aftermath.
Winds ripped roofs off of buildings while numerous areas flooded on the neighboring islands of St. Barthelemy and St. Martin on Wednesday. Similar conditions hit the small island of Barbuda, where winds of 118 mph and gusts of 155 mph were recorded before a weather station’s instrument failed. Initial assessments following the storm revealed the island to be “barely habitable” with over 95 percent of its buildings destroyed and officials declared state of emergency on Thursday. Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said Thursday that 50 percent of the country’s small population are currently homeless.
“We flew into Barbuda only to see total carnage,” Browne told BBC Radio Four. “It was easily one of the most emotionally painful experiences that I have had.”
Some islands were spared Barbuda’s tragedy. Irma passed by Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory without full voting rights, early Thursday morning, leaving the island better off than expected. But the storm’s heavy rains left more than one million residents without power and around 56,000 without potable water. Puerto Rico’s neighbors, Haiti and the Dominican Republican, were also mostly spared a direct lashing by the storm. But for some the worst is still to come — the islands of Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas are preparing for wide-scale disaster.
The precariousness currently facing the islands, many of which are without significant resources or infrastructure, comes at a challenging moment for global climate efforts. Developing countries and territories typically rely on support and aid from their more affluent Western counterparts after massive storms like Irma strike. But those efforts have become more challenging under the Trump administration — making disaster prevention and recovery efforts a bigger hurdle.
Trump has come under repeated criticism for his antagonism toward policies that seek to address and mitigate climate change, both within the U.S. and abroad. Released in late May, the administration’s FY2018 budget called for the United States to cease funding global climate programs. That announcement was followed by another blow, when Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, a controversial move widely condemned by the international community. The agreement, which aims to limit warming temperatures to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels, also works to shift all nations towards sustainable growth practices — something requiring assistance from Western countries like the United States.
In announcing the U.S. withdrawal, Trump singled out that expectation as a point of irritation — honing in on the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which serves as a climate investment tool for the United Nations. Under former President Barack Obama, the United States pledged $3 billion to the fund, $1 billion of which has been paid. But Trump has stopped payments, both to the GCF and to the Climate Investment Funds, which serves a similar role.
That dearth of funding could have grave consequences. Many of the areas most vulnerable to climate change lack the infrastructure to properly combat it, to say nothing of financial resources. While Hurricane Harvey’s destruction in southeast Texas last week clearly showed that climate change-fueled storms are also taking a severe toll on more developed areas, cities in the United States are arguably better equipped to tackle rebuilding efforts — in addition to implementing resilience measures in the first place.
That’s exactly why developing nations require international assistance, said Christina Chan, director of the World Resources Institute’s Climate Resilience Practice. And while other countries have stepped up to bolster their commitments since Trump took office, she said a lack of U.S. support for climate funding will have a long-term impact on prevention and recovery efforts.
“The decision not to request any funding to help the most vulnerable adapt to face climate change will have an impact,” Chan told ThinkProgress. “It’s great to see other countries stepping up, but not having U.S. contributions will definitely have an impact.”
Trump’s approach marks a dramatic shift from his predecessor. Under Obama, the United States contributed $30 million to boost climate risk insurance initiatives aimed at areas in the Pacific, the Caribbean, and Africa. That funding, part of a wider G7 pledge, was crucial for both pre- and post-disaster efforts in developing areas — something underscored by the initial footage following Irma.
Radio Caraïbes International Guadeloupe, a media outlet, uploaded footage of St. Martin to Twitter, revealing submerged areas and significant damage:
— RCI Guadeloupe (@RCI_GP) September 6, 2017
— RCI Guadeloupe (@RCI_GP) September 6, 2017
French interior minister Gerard Collomb confirmed the damage to reporters on Wednesday.
“We know that the four most solid buildings on the island have been destroyed which means that more rustic structures have probably been completely or partially destroyed,” Collomb said.
St. Martin, which is governed in part by the Netherlands and in part by France, is among those islands likely to require a significant amount of aid, much of which is expected to come from Western nations. Dutch U.N. Ambassador Karel van Oosterom called on the U.N. General Assembly Wednesday to provide assistance to those areas affected, asking for “compassion with the people in the region who are suffering right at this moment, to show solidarity, and to provide assistance where necessary.”
While officials assess the damage on those islands already hit, other precarious areas are experiencing deja vu. Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti in 2016, leaving the incredibly poor country in a state of disaster — something Irma is likely to worsen, although the storm mostly passed by the island of Hispaniola.
“The level of poverty in Haiti is not even comparable to some of the other countries,” said Laura Sewell, assistant country director in Haiti for CARE. Sewell told the Star that Haiti was significantly more precarious than its already-vulnerable neighbors. “Haiti has less developed tourist industries and agricultural export industries, so it means there’s sort of a chronic level of vulnerability.”
Examples like Haiti are, according to Chan, important to focus on when thinking about climate funding and aid. And while the wider international community may step up to help out, there’s no question U.S. support is needed to truly address the issue.
“Having the United States contribute has a ripple effect,” said Chan. “It’s a positive thing. When we saw the United States begin to provide climate adaptation assistance in 2010… what you saw was an increase in assistance on all sides. It’s a galvanizing thing, U.S. support.”
Without it, she said, efforts were likely to have far less of an impact.