Back-to-Back Storms Turn UN Eyes to Climate Change

Taken from a video shown on Sept. 18, 2017, to the United Nations General Assembly, this still shows Barbuda’s devastation following Hurricane Irma last week. (Courthouse News Service)

UNITED NATIONS (CN) — Slated to be a keynote speaker at a high-level meeting Monday on Hurricane Irma, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda had to send his regrets as his country prepared for another deadly storm headed to the vulnerable islands.

In place of Prime Minister Gaston Browne, the nation’s Governor General Rodney Williams gave a sobering depiction of the scale of Barbuda’s devastation.

“Mr President, for the first time in over 300 years, there is today not a single human being living on Barbuda,” Williams told General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak on Monday.

“An entire society has been plucked out of their homeland; from their property; from everything that defines them as a people,” he continued. “Virtually everything has to be rebuilt. Vitally important now are water and electricity systems without which life cannot be sustained.”

This image from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows an advisory released on Sept. 18, 2017, about Hurricane Maria, which is set to blow through the Caribbean this week. (Courthouse News Service via NOAA)

Compounding its woes, Barbuda faces another threat from Hurricane Maria, which just today intensified from a tropical storm into a Category 3 storm.

If it makes landfall, Maria may simply further blow and drench the rubble that used to be more than 90 percent of Barbuda’s structures and vehicles.

Williams estimated the current damage at $300 million — more than 20 percent of Barbuda’s gross domestic product. “The public infrastructures were completely destroyed,” he said. “Schools, the hospital and homes were severely damaged and dangerous to enter. Debris and dead animals compromised sanitation. The inhabitants of the island were dazed and bewildered, traumatized and distressed.”

The back-to-back storms led many U.N. member nations gathering in the Trusteeship Council Chambers at U.N. headquarters to link the increase in extreme weather to catastrophic climate change.

One notable holdout from the chorus was the United States.

“A Serial Killer of the 21st Century”

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 18, 2017, French Minister Nicolas Hulot warns about the importance of understanding the link between climate change and natural disasters. (Courthouse News Service)

For French Minister Nicolas Hulot, unfolding weather patterns show the convergence between reality and Hollywood’s darkest imagination.

“We live, as we have just been reminded, in a sinister trailer of a catastrophe film that is in danger of developing and which shows us once again that if we do nothing to fight against climate change, this one will be well a serial killer of the 21st century,” Hulot said.

The French Caribbean island of Saint Martin saw 70 percent of its island destroyed by Irma.

Irma also made evacuees of 5,500 people from the Dominican Republic, whose President Danilo Medina Sanchez also linked global warming to the storm.

“They are particularly deadly precisely because of the heating of the oceans caused by climate change,” Sanchez said at today’s meeting. “This is a reason why the sea levels are rising by 3 centimeters a year.”

Addressing the United Nations at its New York headquarters on Sept. 18, 2017, U.N. General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak introduced a video on the devastation Hurricane Irma wrought on the Caribbean island of Barbuda the week prior. (Courthouse News Service via U.N.)

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said no island of the country’s archipelago was spared.

“Hurricane Irma battered Cuba for more than 72 hours,” Parrilla said. “It struck almost the entire north coast of the country. Virtually no region was exempt from its effects. Notwithstanding the huge number of preventive measures taken, we suffered the loss of 10 human lives.”

Quoting a message from Cuba’s President Raul Castro — who is not expected to attend this year’s general assembly — Parrilla said “our people are reborn with every adversity.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted the trend is hardly new.

“Over the past month, four major Atlantic hurricanes have swept across the ocean,” Guterres said. “This year’s hurricane season is already the most violent on record, and it will continue until the end of November.

“The season fits a pattern: changes to our climate are making extreme weather events more severe and frequent, pushing communities into a vicious cycle of shock and recovery,” Guterres continued. “Extreme weather linked to climate change has an impact all over the world, including floods in southern Asia and landslides and droughts in Africa.”

Guterres called upon the world’s governments to build on efforts in line with 2030 Agenda and the Paris agreement, both of which the Trump administration has vowed to scale back.

Once Outspoken, Now Silent on Climate Change

Michele Sison, the U.S. deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, took care not to mention climate change as she spoke before the General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 18, 2017.

As the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives under the Obama administration, now-deputy Permanent Representative Michele Sison rarely shied away from discussing global warming.

In a 2015 interview, Sison heralded the latter country as a “leader in climate-change work.”

“The focus on a climate-resilient island model is a $7 million program at this point,” she said at the time. “It looks at individual islands and a variety of tools and adaptive strategies seeking to prevent the intrusion of saltwater into their groundwater — because, of course, an island is only habitable if there is fresh water.”

Sison did not draw upon that expertise, however, in her discussions Monday involving other vulnerable island nations in the room.

Instead, she focused on the less controversial topic of the more than $1.2 million in aid that U.S. Agency for International Development has committed to the thousands battered by Irma.

“The humanitarian assistance we provide abroad represents the best of American support and solidarity,” Sison said.

The shift in focus appears to reflect President Donald Trump’s influence on the Department of State, as he threatens to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement once the treaty allows such a change.

Perhaps less constrained than the State Department, a celebrity called before the General Assembly on Monday drew the connection Sison left unsaid.

The actor Robert De Niro spoke before the General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 18, 2017, about the link between climate change and natural disasters. (Courthouse News Service via U.N.)

“We have a humanitarian crisis — an entire island destroyed,” actor Robert de Niro said. “We must act together to help the most vulnerable, the ones affected by disaster and vulnerable to the effects of climate change.”

De Niro’s advocacy on behalf of Barbuda was no accident: The “Goodfellas” star drew controversy last year with his plans to develop a 391-acre, $250 million mega-resort on the grounds of Barbuda’s long-abandoned K Club.

The Guardian reported in 2016 that Barbuda residents slammed de Niro’s project as an outcropping of the “Paradise Found” bill, which incentivizes celebrity investment with such perks as a 25-year tax holiday.

Today, de Niro urged the island’s residents and the world community to keep building in Barbuda.

“I implore all countries and agencies to give and ensure for Barbudans: Home and paradise is not lost,” he said.

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