Don’t be complacent: climate change will ravage rich and poor alike

Residents of Roseau, Dominica, survey the damage caused by Hurricane Maria. Photograph: AFP Contributor AFP/Getty Images

Don’t be complacent: climate change will ravage rich and poor alike

In Pointe Michel, on the Caribbean island of Dominica,  I met a woman sitting in the middle of a pile of rubble. On her right  there was a fridge and on her left a ruined mattress – the only  recognisable possessions among the jumble of concrete, wood, metal,  glass, galvanised iron and everything else that just a few weeks ago  used to be her home. She and her family had been spared but they had  lost everything when the wrath of Hurricane Maria exploded there, another terrifying manifestation of climate change.

Just  down the road, MP Denise Charles, who was taking me round the island to  assess the damage, pointed to a spot marked with debris, trees and  boulders. At first I thought she was showing me a damaged road. Then she  told me there used to be three houses on that spot. Fourteen people are  thought to have perished when Maria smashed these homes into  nonexistence.

Everywhere I went these stories were repeated. Every corner of this precious island, decimated. Flying in, I did not recognise Dominica,  the land of my birth. The once flourishing, green vegetation that  rolled over every mountain and carpeted the valleys is gone. It has been  replaced by sickly brown, bald patches of land and naked trees,  stripped of their bark and lying on the ground like discarded  matchsticks or sticking up in the air in stark defiance.

Travelling  around the country was difficult, with recently constructed roads caved  in and barely accessible. I was shell-shocked when I visited Scotts  Head, a beloved fishing village that holds many fond memories for me. It  was virtually unrecognisable. Every house on the water’s edge is gone.  In their place is now a beach, some rubble and a solitary boat, the only  reminder of the once flourishing fishing trade.

Patricia Scotland, left, witnesses the devastation in Dominica.

In Barbuda,  another Caribbean island, there is a similar tale of utter devastation.  Driving through the ghostly empty streets on the evacuated island it  was hard to imagine that just two months ago this was a vibrant  community. Our guides spoke about landmarks in the past tense. “This  used to be a church, this was the police station,” pointing to a  roofless blue building. I walked around a primary school that looked  like it had been bombed, and a hospital that would have to be rebuilt  almost from scratch.

These pictures are seared into my memory.  The stories of utter terror in the dead of night, of not knowing if  you will survive, of people emerging the next morning like zombies, of  funerals and memorials, will be in my mind every time I go into a  meeting about my 52 member states.

But now, the glare of the  media spotlight is dimming and my fear is that this story will slide off  the international agenda. We absolutely cannot allow that to happen,  because what I witnessed in the last week are two countries in the  Caribbean in deep humanitarian crisis.

And what makes it even  more worrying are the rules that the international community has set to  help make aid distribution fair. There is a huge question mark over  whether some of the countries affected by Irma and Maria will be able to  get the help they need.

Dominica is currently classed as upper  middle income, which still makes it eligible for Overseas Development  Assistance. But Antigua and Barbuda is a high-income country, which  excludes it from receiving that assistance. Under criteria set by the  Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, those islands  will probably cease to be recipients of assistance this year.

The  fact is, it is not fair to exclude higher income but climate-vulnerable  countries from that vital assistance when they are stuck by a  cataclysmic disaster. Certainly not in this new epoch in which category 5  hurricanes, which used to come once in a lifetime, are coming within  weeks of each other and with a new kind of ferocity. What Hurricanes  Irma and Maria demonstrated, with vicious clarity, is that a high-income  country could be made destitute in a matter of hours.

It’s heartening that, after tireless advocacy from the Commonwealth  and other organisations, and leadership by the UK, these rules are going  to be reviewed. My worry is that change will not happen quickly enough  to meet the mammoth challenges facing the Caribbean and other regions  that have been so grievously damaged by a season of climatic upheaval.

All  those involved in making these rules, such as the World Bank and  the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, have to consider seriously  our present reality and to create eligibility criteria that adequately  respond to what countries, particularly those more prone to natural  disasters, are actually experiencing.

This is a concern for all of us; because just before the Caribbean hurricanes, hundreds died in mudslides in Sierra Leone and in floods in Asia, and thousands were displaced.

This  is not just about a woman, thousands of miles away, sitting amid  the wreckage of her home. This is about a rapid, drastic change in  climate that is wreaking havoc on our planet. Even in Ireland, Storm  Ophelia claimed three lives last month.

We  need to accept the new reality of fast and furious natural disasters  and have a plan to deal with it. We need a targeted global response that  enables us to implement the Paris agreement on climate change and  better coordinate a rapid reaction, with everything taken into account:  search and rescue, regional coordination and legal impediments, such as  the revision of aid rules.

But it also needs to recognise that  the human spirit demonstrated by the Commonwealth during this traumatic  period is something upon which we can build. We need all hands on deck.  If not us, who – and if not now, when?

This story was originally posted on the Guardian.