Sep 21, 2019 Last Updated 3:13 AM, Sep 21, 2019

Climate change and the Pacific

  • Sep 22, 2019
  • Published in August
A story in progress
Prologue
In 1999 David Schindler, an ecologist, wrote, “To a patient scientist, the unfolding greenhouse mystery is far more exciting than the plot of the best mystery novel”. I wonder how he would describe the mystery novella today, twenty years later. Once you have read this condensed version of the updated story, you can decide if the mystery has deepened, or has been solved. 
 
Chapter 1. In the Beginning
An exciting mystery begins by introducing the foundational characters. Originally there were two such characters in the climate change story. In 1824 Joseph Fourier pioneered our understanding of the role of the atmosphere in warming the Earth. He discovered that something in the atmosphere made the Earth warmer than he had previously calculated. A few decades later, in 1861, John Tyndall identified that “something” as what we now refer to as greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor and hydrocarbon gases such as methane. Tyndall proved these to be extremely efficient absorbers of radiant heat energy, in comparison to the more common constituents of the atmosphere, namely oxygen and nitrogen. Tyndall went on to speculate that changes in the concentration of the former gases could have an impact on the Earth’s climate.

And that’s how the opening lines of the story read for well over 100 years.
 
Chapter 2. A New Character
The story line had to be rewritten in 2011, when a scholar by the name of Raymond Sorenson published an article which identified a third foundational character. Sorenson highlighted that in 1856, three years prior to Tyndall's first report, the research findings of Eunice Newton Foote were presented at an annual science meeting in Albany, New York. Not by her, but on her behalf, by a Professor Joseph Henry. In that era it was very unusual for a woman scientist to be given the opportunity to present her own work, let alone publish a paper. As a result, her work is known today only from a journalistic summary published in the annual review of world-wide scientific achievements in 1856.

Eunice Foote was not only a pioneering American scientist but also a well-known inventor and women's rights campaigner. Sorenson’s summary highlights the significance of the experiments conducted by Foote. Her most notable achievement was to demonstrate enhanced absorption of radiant heat energy by CO2. She also showed the potential for atmospheric warming due to rising CO2 levels. Significantly, this year (2019) is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Eunice Foot.
 
Chapter3.Optimism
From then and through the first half of the 20th century the prevailing thinking of the scientific and wider community was, in hindsight, overly optimistic. Since there would be only a slow increase in the Earth’s population, the resulting increase in CO2 emissions would also be slow. The consequential warming would be even slower, due to the uptake of both heat and CO2 by the world’s oceans. And, finally, such warming would be overwhelmingly beneficial.

How wrong this proved to be, on all counts.
 
Chapter4.WinWinTurnstoLoseLoseLose
From the 1950s on there was a flurry of studies, catalysed by the growing realisation of the many widespread and serious consequences of global warming. The far-reaching significance of these findings was facilitated by comprehensive and authoritative assessments conducted by bodies of independent experts, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC published its first assessment in 1990, and continues to report its findings on a five-yearly cycle.

In 1850 the Earth’s population was around 1.2 billion. It is now over 7.7 billion. This growth, along with industrialisation and increases in per capita production and consumption, has driven the increasing concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

While the Earth’s population increased 6.5 times since 1850, global CO₂ emissions are now over 150 times higher than they were back then. At that time the United Kingdom was the top emitter of CO₂, with emissions nearly six times those of the country with the second-highest emissions, the United States. France, Germany and Belgium completed the list of top five emitters. Now China is the world’s largest emitter, followed by the United States, India, Russia and Japan. Significantly, while the United States has ranked as the world’s second-largest emitter from 1850 to today, its emissions have grown almost twice as fast as the increase in global emissions of CO2. Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher than for at least the last 800,000 years, and the rate of increase is unprecedented in the Earth’s history.

As anticipated, at least in qualitative terms, the oceans have indeed absorbed CO2 – around half of the global emissions since 1800. But even this saving grace comes at a cost. The absorption results in ocean acidification, thereby slowing the growth of calcareous organisms such as coral, while also reducing the rate of further CO2 uptake by the oceans.

The oceans have also taken up much of the additional heat initially trapped by the atmosphere. Indeed, more than 90% of the Earth’s energy imbalance between 1971 and 2010 has been stored as heat in the ocean. But once again, this has come at a cost. The additional heat in the ocean caused 40% of the global mean sea-level rise between 1993 to 2010. A warmer ocean further slows the rate of CO2 absorption, seriously impacts marine organisms and ecosystems, and has wider and serious negative consequences for natural and human systems, both terrestrial and marine.

The consequences of atmospheric and oceanic warming and acidification cascade through and impact all terrestrial, oceanic and atmospheric systems. The changes are so pervasive we now use the umbrella term “climate change”, as opposed to the much narrower expression of “global warming”.
 
Chapter5.ImplicationsforthePacific,andBeyond
The consequences are equally far reaching, and overwhelmingly negative, for natural as well as human systems. This is so for the Blue Pacific, the world’s largest oceanic continent, which is core to the region’s way of life, shaping the cultural, spiritual and historical identity of Pacific peoples as well as the economies of Pacific Island nations and territories. Blue Pacific captures the Pacific’s transformation from Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to Big Ocean Sustainable States (BOSS). They, and indeed the world, have much to lose as the climate changes. Over 50 percent of the world production of tuna is from the western and central Pacific
Ocean. Fish protein makes up 50-90% of animal protein consumption in rural areas of the Pacific, and 40-80% in urban areas. Pacific Ocean-based fishing and tourism alone provide USD 3.3 billion to the economies of Pacific Island countries and territories, amounting to 10.5% of regional GDP. More specifically, Melanesia's ocean economy has an estimated worth of USD 548 billion, or USD 5.4 billion annually.

But studies suggest that by 2050 there will be a 20% decline in coral reef fish production in some Pacific Island countries. For 75% of Pacific Island countries and territories coastal fisheries will fail to meet food security needs by 2030, due to a combination of population growth (exacerbating unsustainable extraction), climate change and inadequate national distribution networks. Moreover, nine of seventeen Pacific Island countries and territories could experience declines of over 50% in maximum catch potential by 2100.
 
Chapter6.FromHindsighttoForesight
When using hindsight to provide foresight it is useful to add insight as an intermediate step. This framing of the climate change story is illustrated by way of two examples of great importance to the Pacific Islands region.
 
Example1:FutureofCoralReefs
 
Hindsight tells us that coral reefs are capable of growing vertically at rates faster than those projected for sea-level rise this century. They have survived both higher sea levels and high rates of sea-level rise in the past. But insight reminds us that these capabilities are severely compromised if the reef is unhealthy, for example, due to high pollution loads from land-based sources of pollution, physical damage caused by snorkelers, divers and boat operators, or because of coral bleaching and ocean acidification. Foresight tells us that with 1.5°C of global warming, the ambitious target in the Paris Agreement, the Pacific region is facing a loss of 70– 90% of reef-building corals compared to today. With 2°C of global warming 99% of the Pacific’s corals will be lost. The demise of the corals is not just because of the synergistic effects of increases in ocean temperature and ocean acidification. These combine with local threats such as sedimentation, nutrient enrichment, disease, over-exploitation and physical damage. Pacific nations and territories can do little other than lobby others to keep global emissions below the 1.5°C target, and hence limit the rate of increase in ocean temperatures and acidification. But they can do much to prevent the local threats to their coastal ecosystems. 
 
Example2:FutureHabitabilityofPacificIslands
 
The second example concerns the future habitability of Pacific islands. This is an equally important issue, but it is also highly contentious, scientifically and politically. Recently we have seen in highly reputable scientific journals papers with titles such as “Most atolls will be uninhabitable by the mid-21st century because of sea-level rise exacerbating wave-driven flooding”. Despite being a much more balanced assessment, the paper with the title “Patterns of island change and persistence offer alternate adaptation pathways for atoll nations” still attracted the ire of some Pacific politicians. A major tension exists between those whose agendas are served by studies which invoke the likelihood of climate-induced migration, and those who recognize the strong and enduring relationship that Pacific Islanders have with their land. For the latter, any talk about forced migration is an anathema.

Hindsight informs us that over recent decades, and despite the Pacific experiencing some of the highest rates of sea-level rise globally, over threequarters of the 394 Pacific atoll islands included in the study were stable in area. Importantly, nearly 20% of the islands increased in size, usually due to a combination of natural and human factors. The areas of less than 10% of the islands decreased in size. The finding that atoll islands affected by rapid sea-level rise did not show a distinct behaviour compared to other atoll islands is of even greater significance.

Recent physical modelling experiments of a reef island add credence to the above findings. The experiments demonstrated that overwash processes provide a mechanism to build and maintain the freeboard of such islands above sea level. Thus these islands have the capability to respond to rising sea level, through island accretion.

The above findings can be complemented by several important insights. The coastal areas of high islands, where people and built assets are usually concentrated, face levels of risk similar to those of atoll islands. Land tenure, infrastructure and other land uses limit the option to retreat in the face of sea-level rise, more damaging storm surges and other coastal hazards. And we all need to be reminded that there are multiple determinants of atoll and high island habitability in the longer term, not just sea-level rise.

In response, the Pacific is demonstrating considerable foresight. For example, the Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific was endorsed by Pacific Leaders in 2016, and came into effect at the beginning of 2017. The Framework is a global first, where the Pacific seeks to reduce exposure to climate and disaster risk, support low carbon development and improve disaster response and reconstruction. It reflects an understanding of the need to manage climate and disaster risks as an integral part of development. The Framework promotes a “development first” approach, where the desired development outcomes are identified first, and then assessed to determine how climate and disaster risks may affect their achievement. As a result, identification and prioritization of investments relate to the overarching goal of resilient development, where the two goals of sustainable development and building resilience are achieved through a joint approach.
 
Epilogue
The end of this climate change story lacks a dramatic climax worthy of a mystery novel, but it does give cause for reflection. A key message is the importance of not oversimplifying, or excessively politicizing, the climate and related challenges facing Pacific Island countries and territories. Some have described climate change, and especially sea-level rise, as an “existential threat” to the region, creating “climate refugees” and the need for “migration with dignity”. But as new scientific evidence comes to hand, resulting in fresh and widespread understanding, such rhetoric and policy is increasingly giving way to that of “stay and fight”. This involves relying on achieving more resilient development, including through adaptation and emissions mitigation efforts.

Does all this mean that, 20 years on, Schindler would have a different view of the “unfolding greenhouse mystery”? This condensed version of the story would suggest not.

While the plot has changed from solving the science to clarifying island and human futures, multiple objectives, tensions and maneuvering are enduring features of the climate change story

By Nic Maclellan in Funafuti, Tuvalu

In a marathon leaders’ retreat that continued well into the night, with often heated debate, the Pacific Islands Forum has issued a joint communique and a new declaration on climate change.

Throughout this week in Tuvalu, the Australian delegation has defended a series of negotiating red lines against strong pressure from island leaders, seeling more urgent responses to the climate crisis from the largest Forum member.

During the final development of the Forum’s annual agenda, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Minister for International Development and the Pacific Alex Hawke and Australian officials insisted on the removal of references to coal, establishing a target below 1.5 degrees Celsius for global warming, and being required to announce next year a strategy for zero emissions by 2050.

Islands Business asked Prime Minister Morrison if the pleas of island leaders had persuaded him to change his government’s policy, refusing to make further financial contributions to the Green Climate Fund. He replied: “No, it hasn’t, because I just want to invest directly in helping the Pacific family here. I don’t need to send a cheque via Geneva or New York or wherever it has to go.” The GCF Secretariat is actually in Incheon, South Korea, which he should know, given Australia was previously co-chair of the global climate fund.

Tense arguments in the retreat

In the end, however, all Forum members agreed to the “Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now - Securing the Future of our Blue Pacific.”

Forum host Enele Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu and Prime Minister Morrison presented a united front at the post-conference press conference (delayed until Friday morning after leaders debated long into the night). But this diplomatic façade could not belie the damage done to Australia’s reputation and Morrison’s relationship with some leaders.

Sopoaga acknowledged that there were heated moments during the leaders retreat: "We expressed very strongly during our exchange, between me and Scott. I said: ‘You are concerned about saving your economies, your situation in Australia, I’m concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu and likewise other leaders of small island countries.’”

“That was the tone of the discussion. Please don’t expect that he comes and we bow down or that.

“We were exchanging flaring language, not swearing, but of course you know, expressing the concerns of leaders and I was very happy with the exchange of ideas, it was frank. Prime Minister Morrison, of course, stated his position and I stated my position and other leaders: we need to save these people.”

There were two occasions where the meeting almost broke down without agreement, but after a 12-hour marathon, a final compromise on wording was achieved. Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has used his Twitter account to express concern about the final compromises by some fellow Forum Island Countries, tweeting: “Watered-down climate language has real consequences – like water-logged homes, schools, communities, and ancestral burial grounds.”

After the meeting, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu said: “Everyone had to shift their positions. It was very fierce and very frank, and some people just didn’t want to move. But in the end, everyone had to move a bit.”

Regenvanu told Islands Business that overall Vanuatu was happy with the final Kainaki II climate declaration, which will be presented to the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in September. Leaders will call on Secretary General Antonio Guterres to urgently appoint a Special Adviser on climate change and security.

“I think the wording is strong,” Regenvanu said. “There’s reference to 1.5 degrees throughout, there’s reference to the IPCC report throughout, there’s references to achieving net zero emissions, eliminating inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and a just transition away from fossil fuels. Most of the key language we want to be included that has not been included in the past is there.”

Leaders noted (but did not endorse) the proposal for a United Nations General Assembly Resolution seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change.

Climate demands

Despite the deletion of most references to coal and wordsmithing to give flexibility to all parties, the language of the declaration may cause some grief at home for Scott Morrison. His conservative Liberal/National Coalition government contains many people who are resistant to the Pacific’s ongoing call for urgent action on climate, including the closure of coal mines and reduction of fossil fuel exports.

In the face of ongoing climate denial in Australia amongst conservative members of the government, the Kainaki II declaration states: “The science is non-negotiable. Urgent action by the international community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is critical to keep us on the 1.5°C pathway.

“Right now, climate change and disasters are impacting all our countries. Our seas are rising, oceans are warming, and extreme events such as cyclones and typhoons, flooding, drought and king tides are frequently more intense, inflicting damage and destruction to our communities and ecosystems and putting the health of our peoples at risk. All around the world, people affected by disaster and climate change-induced displacement are losing their homes and livelihoods, particularly the most vulnerable atoll nations.”

Forum leaders welcomed the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stating that it “remains the authoritative scientific body on climate change and is regarded as providing governments the best available science on climate change. The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C indicates that in model pathways with no or limited overshoots of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, global net anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.”

Important provisions of the declaration call on “all parties to the Paris Agreement to

meet or exceed their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in order to pursue global efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this is critical to the security of our Blue Pacific.”

They called on G20 countries to formulate and communicate mid-century long-term low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies by 2020; rapidly implement their commitment to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies; and accelerate support for the work of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.

New vision for Forum

Key decisions from the final communiqué include plans for the development of a vision statement on Pacific regionalism for coming decades, and a range of initiatives on Forum governance.

Leaders endorsed the development of the “2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, which must ensure social, cultural, environmental and economic integrity, sovereignty and security in order to protect people, place and prospects of the Blue Pacific”.

The Forum Secretariat is tasked to prepare a draft strategy for leaders’ consideration at next year’s Forum in Vanuatu. However, at their July meeting, Foreign Ministers stressed that there needed to be a mid-term target of 2030, with clear objectives set out over the next decade in line with the period of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Leaders endorsed the concept for the establishment of the regionally owned and led Pacific Resilience Facility, although there were some reservations from Fiji. Samoa has offered to host the new funding facility for resilience initiatives by island government and communities.

There were a range of decisions on oceans and fisheries policy, including moves towards a regular Regional Fisheries Ministers Meeting. Leaders reaffirmed their commitment to conclude negotiations on all outstanding maritime boundaries claims and zones, although there are many ongoing disputes between member states over conflicting claims.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Sopoaga confirmed: “We spoke very strongly against the leakage of nuclear waste into the Pacific and about the need to address them as urgently as possible.”

Leaders expressed concern “for the significance of the potential threat of nuclear contamination, World War II wrecks and unexploded ordnances to the health and security of the Blue Pacific her people and prospects, acknowledged the importance of addressing the long-standing issues of nuclear testing legacy in the Pacific and called for the operationalisation of the provisions of the Rarotonga Treaty, as necessary.”

To support Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, who has pushed the issue of nuclear and toxic contaminants throughout her term, the Forum agreed to commission “a comprehensive, independent and objective scientific assessment of the contamination issue in the Pacific, including in the nuclear test site at Runit Island in the Marshall Islands”.

Leaders agreed to request a meeting with US President Donald Trump to discuss the current and emerging issues of the nuclear testing legacy in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and in the Blue Pacific.

The Forum endorsed an Action Plan to implement the Boe Declaration adopted at the 2018 Forum meeting in Nauru, and agreed to set up a Sub-Committee of the Forum Officials’ Committee on Regional Security.

Reflecting the multiple, conflicting positions on climate change during the week, and the demands of Smaller Island States (SIS), leaders “endorsed with qualification, the Summary of Decisions of the 28th Smaller Island States Leaders Meeting and directed the Secretariat to institute a process for tabling the SIS Leaders’ decisions at Leaders Meetings.”

For a full wrap up of the 50th Pacific Islands Forum, subscribe now for the next edition of Islands Business magazine 

By Makereta Komai, PACNEWS Editor in Funafuti

After a marathon meeting, Pacific Islands Forum Leaders have issued a communique and a climate change declaration with qualifications in Tuvalu

Chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Summit, Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga of Tuvalu was particularly happy with the affirmation of declaration on climate change for the survival of Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS).

“The Forum leaders agreed with no brackets on the declaration for climate change. It’s quite an outcome and we are happy that we have the endorsement from members with qualification.

Admitting that Australia was the only member to make a  qualification, Prime Minister Sopoaga said the communique still reflected the language used in Nauru last year.

“I think we can say that we should have done more work for our people but it’s a matter for our people to reflect more. I seek the respect and understanding of the Pacific people on the outcome which is really a negotiated outcome and still contains some references to the United Nations Secretary General’s message to accelerate actions against climate change and that’s the way forward. It provides a basis for stronger Pacific presentation in New York and we have to live with that.

Sopoaga said the SIS climate change declaration was endorsed in full. A number of Forum members have said they will not sign up to document they did not negotiate.

“It is there and the language will never change and not a single t or comma was taken out. That was the ultimate objective.

“We can work together as a Forum family by coming here in this location, the Kainaki Rua, where we have the ocean and the lagoon on the other side which further amplifies the extreme vulnerability of Tuvalu. I am sure Leaders have taken note of this and are focused on the survival of the Pacific. We ask please understand this – our people are dying," said Sopoaga.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a different view on the two outcome statements from the Forum Leaders Retreat.

“We worked through issues in a spirit of commitment. It commits us to realise that here in the Pacific, the impact of climate change and rising sea level is real and happening to them right now and has been for some time, so the actions and directions that are set out in both those documents speak about commitments to address those issues.

“It’s a general statement and what that means is that what the Smaller Island States (SIS) agree to is not binding on the rest of the members.

The Australian leader, who many speculated was isolated during the Leaders Retreat, denied being left out by the group

“No Australia was not isolated at all. We agreed to our communique and the Smaller Island States statement was exactly the same as what was agreed to in Nauru last year.

The Australian leader praised his New Zealand counterpart, Jacinda Ardern for the way she worked with Pacific leaders at the Retreat.

“We don’t always have to agree and but when we disagree we do it well. I am all for lively debate and discussion. We’ve got to learn to disagree better, showing respect to one another as we did last night, showing respect to the existential challenges that faces our region."

Australia, Morrison said is here in the region to stay and it is committed to supporting its ‘family’ in the Pacific.

“What we are doing is we want to want to help our family in the Pacific with resilience challenges of climate change. We are just going to do that directly and get on with it. We’ll do it quicker, we’ll do it better and we will do it with greater partnerships.

“I am accountable to the Australian public and I came here with a very strong record to demonstrate what we have done to turn our situation to reduce our emissions to meet our 2030 target.

He revealed that Australia has invested AUD$500 million (US$339 million) this financial year, which includes AUD$200(US$135 million) million through the Global Climate Fund. "That money is going into serious resilience work right across the world particularly the Pacific. And what we are doing at the end of this financial year is putting down another AUD$500 million and that is going here in the Pacific to address resilience. That is big commitment,"  Morrison told journalists after the Retreat after 10pm Thursday night.

The Australian PM maintains the reliance on coal to provide energy is falling.

“That is expected to continue to happen as the economy goes through a transition, not just in the next ten years, 20 and 30 years. What Australia has done in the last six years is that it has taken what was a 700 million tonne deficit in what we were expecting in 2020 in our projection of carbon emission and turned that around in a AUD$300 million (US$203 million) surplus. So Australia’s action on climate change has produced a more than 1 billion tonne turn around on carbon emission," said Morrison

 

By Nic Maclellan in Funafuti, Tuvalu

As leaders gather in Tuvalu for the 50th Pacific Islands Forum, Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine has criticised Australia’s reluctance to undertake a rapid transition from the use of coal and other fossil fuels.

“We’re discouraged and disappointed at the fact that Australia is still actively using coal for their own power generation, and it looks like that is something that is going to continue into the future,” she said. “That’s not helping the issue of emissions and we know they understand that.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrived in Tuvalu on Wednesday to attend his first Forum leaders’ retreat. Australia has announced a $500 million pledge of climate finance over the next five years (with funds simply rebadged from existing aid allocations). Despite this pledge, Heine has joined a number of leaders from vulnerable low-lying atoll nations – including host nation Tuvalu – who have been forthright in their criticism of the Morrison government’s ongoing commitment to the expansion of coal mining and exports.

Meeting before the formal summit, island leaders issued the “Tuvalu Declaration on Climate Change for the Survival of Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS).” The declaration supports “the UN Secretary General’s call for an immediate global ban on the construction of new coal fired power plants and coal mines and calls on all countries to rapidly phase out their use of coal in the power sector.”

President Heine was also critical of the Morrison government’s decision to end Australian funding for the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the global funding mechanism that provides loans and grants for adaptation and emissions reduction in developing nations.

The GCF is about to launch a replenishment round, to increase OECD pledges beyond US$10 billion. Despite Australia’s stated belief that some island leaders prefer direct bilateral climate funding, the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (PSIDS) and the Smaller Islands States (SIS) caucus endorsed the Tuvalu Declaration on Tuesday. This statement clearly welcomes “the significant role that the GCF plays in supporting developing countries in their efforts to address climate change. We call for a prompt, ambitious and successful replenishment of the GCF.”

US President Donald Trump has also refused to make further financial commitments to the GCF. RMI President Heine has asked Australia’s Scott Morrison to heed the call from islands neighbours.

 “We’ve also heard that they’re pulling back from funding the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which is also very disappointing,” she said. “In the case of the Marshall Islands, we’re beginning to work on our adaptation plan, as sea level rise gets more serious. We know that it will impact the Marshall Islands in very serious ways, so we have to have adaptation which we call a survival plan.”

President Heine said: “In order to make that plan a reality, we need that assistance, we need the donor community to come up with the resources that will help us adapt to our situation. If we’re talking about raising parts of the Marshall Islands, that’s an intensive proposition. We know we cannot do it on our own, so the necessity of an organisation like the Green Climate Fund comes into play. That’s why I hope the Australian government will reconsider their position when it comes to the Green Climate Fund.”

Meeting Donald Trump

Last May, President Heine joined Micronesian leaders Tommy Remengesau of Palau and David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) at the White House, in an unprecedented joint meeting with US President Donald Trump.

As the former colonial power, the United States has maintained Compacts of Free Association with RMI and FSM since 1986 and with Palau since 1994. But key provisions of the often-extended Compacts come to an end in 2023-4. The US freely associated states have been seeking a further extension of these funding, migration and services agreements.

President Heine said that the White House visit last May had been vital to gain presidential support for an extension of the US-RMI relationship.

     

“For us, basically that meeting was to get the US government to commit to start the negotiations for the Compact of Free Association for the freely associated states,” she said. “We’ve been talking with the US and with other officials along the way on getting that started. It has taken quite some time for decisions to be made. Now it’s been made. That was the most significant outcome of the meeting – nudging the US to make that decision.”

“It’s not just the Compact,” she noted. “It’s related to their interest in securing the region, because of the geopolitical issues that are emerging, one of which is with China. We know that’s partly the reason that nudged the US into making that decision to extend the Compact.”

The renewed engagement with the Compact states has been boosted by the geopolitical tensions between Washington and Beijing, amid US attempts to contain China’s political and economic rise. Even though RMI and Palau are both diplomatically aligned with Taiwan (and only FSM with the People’s Republic), there is significant economic investment from China in all three Micronesian nations.

President Heine stressed: “Right now, the percentage of our GDP that comes from China is so much higher than the US. It is telling us that the US needs to make the commitment to be there and set up businesses that would provide employment for our people. There are not enough jobs, so these are some of the things that the US has to make commitments to partner with us in economic development by establishing business in the country.”

Last week, President Heine and fellow Micronesian leaders met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Federated States of Micronesia. Offering new security agreements with the Compact States, Pompeo stated: "Today I'm here to reaffirm the United States will help you protect your sovereignty, your freedom and your right to live in freedom and peace."

But many island leaders want to redefine “security” in light of the climate and development crisis that faces their homes. At the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, all leaders signed the Boe Declaration, which looks to an "expanded concept of security inclusive of human security, humanitarian assistance, prioritising environmental security and regional cooperation in building resilience to disasters and climate change, including through regional cooperation and support."

President Heine hopes that renewed US interest in the islands region will take account of these island priorities and this broader definition of security.

“For us, we’ve made sure that we don’t talk just about the security issues and military issues that they’re concerned with,” she said. “Our definition of security is expanded to include economic development – making sure that people have food on the table, so that they’re secure in their place, in their homes. Also, we’re concerned about health security and the health of our people, because there’s a high rate of cancer and other disease as a result of the testing.

“When we talk about security with the US, we say it’s all of them, it’s not just about military security. It’s all about these other issues that are important for the security of the Marshallese people. We don’t want the Marshallese people to leave the Marshall Islands in search of jobs because they are not secure in their own homes.”

Nuclear legacies

The people of the Marshall Islands still live with the radioactive legacy of 67 US nuclear tests, conducted at Bikini and Enewetak atolls between 1946 and 1958. At recent Pacific Islands Forum meetings, President Heine has been seeking regional support for the clean-up of nuclear contaminants, especially from the Runit Dome.

Runit is a nuclear sacrifice zone established when the US military dumped radioactive contaminated materials in an old nuclear bomb crater on Runit Island in Enewetak Atoll. Decades after the nuclear waste was covered in a concrete cap, the dome is cracking and there is growing concern that radioactive isotopes are leaching into the marine environment.

“In respect of the Dome, we’re seeking a more comprehensive assessment of the situation,” Heine explained. “We do need to get a third party involved and do a comprehensive assessment of the whole situation – not just of the Runit Dome but also on other issues of contamination in our marine life. We do have fish poisoning on Kwajalein as a result of the run off from the dry-docking facilities of the military base.

“We want to have a comprehensive look at all of these so we know how to move forward. We have commissioned the National Nuclear Commission to come up with our strategy for justice, and that will be introduced into the Nitijela [RMI parliament] in the next two weeks.”

Last month, new research on radiation levels in RMI’s northern atolls was published in the prestigious US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Sixty-five years after the 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb test, a Columbia University team led by Professor Emlyn Hughes found radiation levels orders of magnitude above background for plutonium, americium-241 and bismuth-207 in the top 25cm of sediment across the entire Bravo bomb crater.

The PNAS research papers also document measurements of cesium-137 in fruits from 11 islands on four atolls in the northern Marshall Islands. More than sixty years after the last test, contamination remains above limits set by international safety standards in some measured fruits. Cesium-137, present in the fallout, has a half-life of approximately 30 years and is readily absorbed by food crops, representing an ongoing health hazard for island inhabitants.

President Heine welcomed the PNAS research, but said it needed to be complemented by further studies. She believed that some people have heard about the new data, but it has not transformed their way of life.

“People are hearing that, but they’re still eating their traditional, indigenous food,” she said. “I’m not sure whether people have internalised that news. I don’t hear people saying that they’re not going to eat the sashimi or the fish, but it is a serious concern for us to look at.”

Micronesian neighbour Kiribati also suffered from Cold War nuclear testing by both the United Kingdom and United States. There were nine British atmospheric nuclear tests on Christmas (Kiritimati) Island in 1957-58. The UK government then allowed the Kennedy administration to use the military facilities for a further 24 US nuclear tests on Kiritimati in 1962.

To highlight the legacy of testing, RMI and Kiribati are currently discussing the organisation of a side event in New York in September, as world leaders gather for the opening of the UN General Assembly and the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit.

President Heine welcomed the support of fellow members of the Pacific Islands Forum – especially the Smaller Island States (SIS) – who have made nuclear contamination a standing item on their annual agenda.

“I think we’re getting that support,” she said. “We’re getting it from Kiribati and from other countries that have been impacted by nuclear testing. The rest of the Pacific have been very solid on supporting us, writing letters to the United Nations and the United States.”

She committed her nation to working on the Forum’s “Blue Pacific” agenda, including common regional issues on the ocean agenda, such as fisheries management, maritime surveillance and controlling Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.

“We have such a big EEZ and we have only two patrol boats to patrol our area,” she laughed. “I often give the example that it’s almost like having one pickup truck with a policeman, patrolling the entire state of Texas! That’s the size of the Marshall Islands when you look at it. So, to have only two patrol boats, we know we cannot cover the EEZ and make sure that it’s secure. We need the fishing nations that work with us to help us in this area.” 

By Nic Maclellan in Funafuti, Tuvalu

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison heads to this week’s 50th Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, Australia has announced that it will commit new climate funding to the Pacific.

Morrison pledged A$500 (US$338) million over five years from 2020 – drawn from existing aid funds – to help Pacific nations invest in renewable energy and climate and disaster resilience.

Before leaving for Funafuti, he stated: “The Pacific is our home, which we share as a family of nations. We’re here to work with our Pacific partners to confront the potential challenges they face in the years ahead. The $500 million we’re investing for the Pacific’s renewable energy and its climate change and disaster resilience builds on the $300 million for 2016-2020. This highlights our commitment to not just meeting our emissions reduction obligations at home but supporting our neighbours and friends.”

The hope that this funding would quiet Pacific anger about the Australian government climate policies has been quickly disabused by Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, host of this week’s summit in Funafuti.

Speaking after the Smaller Island States (SIS) meeting on Tuesday morning, the Forum host welcomed Australian financial support for climate action, but didn’t mince his words: “No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse not to do the right thing – that is, cutting down your emissions, including not opening your coal mines.”

In a major blow to island partners, the Australian pledge is not new and additional funding, but will be drawn from Australia’s overseas aid budget. As part of the Pacific “step up”, the island region has benefitted from stronger aid flows in the last few years – at the expense of Asia and Africa where development budgets have been slashed. But Australian Official Development Assistance (ODA) is at the lowest ever proportion of Gross National Income since figures were first collated in the 1970s. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s 2019-20 budget proposes further reduction of the overall aid budget over the next four years.

The new climate change and oceans package includes a new climate window in the A$2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP). This new mechanism, with $1.5 billion in loans and $500 million in grants, was announced in November 2018 as a counter to Chinese infrastructure investment in the islands, through China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Exim Bank and state-owned corporations.

Love affair with coal

Prime Minister Morrison has previously said that Australia will meet its target for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions “at a canter.” But many Pacific island countries would like Australia to start galloping. The pledged 25-28 per cent reduction of emissions from 2005 levels is reliant on the use of carryover credits from the Kyoto Protocol, a policy opposed by many island governments, which want Canberra to rule out the use of Kyoto carry-over units to meet its Paris Agreement commitments.

Australia’s reputation as a climate partner in the Pacific has taken another blow with the opening up the Galilee Basin to coal mining, with the recently approved Carmichael coal mine proposed by the Indian corporation Adani. The need for a rapid transition away from coal was repeatedly raised at the Sautalaga Climate Dialogue on Monday, coordinated by Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) and hosted by the Tuvalu government.

In his opening speech to the Sautalaga, Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama stated:

“Fiji recognises that coal has always been an important part of the Australian economy, as an export revenue earner and for your national energy security. It has enabled you to build a strong economy that also gives you the means to support our region. We respect the fact that you have your interests and we have ours. And just as we don’t expect to be told what to do in pursuit of our own interests, it is not for us to be prescriptive about how you should run your affairs.

“Having said that, I appeal to Australia to do everything possible to achieve a rapid transition from coal to energy sources that do not contribute to climate change. That transition should be just for your own people and just for us here in the Pacific, where we face an existential threat that you don’t face and challenges we expect your governments and people to more fully appreciate.

“Put simply, the case for coal as an energy source cannot continue to be made if every nation is to meet the net zero emission target by 2050 that has been set by the UN Secretary General and every other responsible leader of the climate struggle.”

Island concern about Australia’s love affair with coal was clearly expressed in the “Tuvalu Declaration on Climate Change for the Survival of Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS)” – the outcome statement from the Sautalaga dialogue. The declaration is unambiguous, reaffirming “the UN Secretary General’s call for an immediate global ban on the construction of new coal fired power plants and coal mines and calls on all countries to rapidly phase out their use of coal in the power sector.”

Funding for action

At the 2016 Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pledged to make a “step change” in Australia’s engagement with the region. Two years later, speaking at Lavarack army barracks, his successor Scott Morrison put some meat on the bones of this pledge, detailing Australia’s “step up” in the Pacific.

Since taking over the leadership of the Coalition, Morrison has travelled to Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, seeking to rebuild relations that suffered during the 2013-15 Abbott government. Tony Abbott’s government  slashed the climate budget, abolished the carbon tax created by the outgoing Labor government, and abandoned Australian support for the Green Climate Fund (GCF) – ironically, Australian diplomat Ewen Macdonald was co-chair of the GCF in its early years, and now serves as head of the new Office of the Pacific within Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Since that time, Australia climate finance has slowly risen, from A$229 million (2014-15) to A$268 million (2017-18). The new funding pledge was promoted in Funafuti by Alex Hawke, Minister for Pacific and International Development, who stated that Australia was listening to Pacific concerns: “Very much we want to say to Fiji and to all of the member states here, that Australia is listening on climate. We will be doing more, we will be spending more through our package and dealing with the adaptation, the resilience needs of the Pacific.”

Hawke stated: “For the first time, Australia will spend $500 million through our aid budget on climate Pacific projects. That includes things like our Infrastructure Financing Facility, which will of course leverage private sector investment into the region through a new climate window. Bilaterally, we will be meeting with every country to discuss their needs and you’ll see that money flow for climate resilience projects and climate adaptation.”

The Turnbull government made an initial contribution of $200 million to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the global mechanism that provides grants and loans to developing nations for climate projects. However, Scott Morrison has refused to commit any further funding to the GCF, stating: “This isn't cheques that we're sending off to some remote fund in Geneva to spend who knows where. We stopped that practice” (The GCF Secretariat is actually located in Korea.)

The government’s policy reaffirmed by Alex Hawke in Funafuti: “We are not going to replenish the fund that you mentioned. Obviously, we think we can, on a bilateral level and a local level in our neighbourhood, in our backyard, do more and do more good ourselves.”

This decision will disappoint Forum island leaders. They have clearly reaffirmed their support for GCF replenishment in the Tuvalu Declaration on Climate Change, which welcomes “the significant role that the GCF plays in supporting developing countries in their efforts to address climate change. We call for a prompt, ambitious and successful replenishment of the GCF and in particular increase the amount and effectiveness of climate change to support Pacific Small Island Developing States.”

Hawke noted that: “Australia’s approach is going to be to have bilateral meetings on climate to identify the needs and the reason is every country has some particular needs in terms of climate adaptation, mitigation and resilience.”

Speaking after the Smaller Island States (SIS) meeting in Funafuti, Prime Minister Sopoaga stressed the importance of common action, suggesting that bilateral dialogue avoided the responsibility for collective action.

“We want global actions and the necessity to replenish global and predictable financial resources under the GCF is very, very critical. The reason we support that is because of the verification process, to make sure this is going directly to the adaptation needs of countries who are affected, focussing on humanitarian needs, not on political needs, helping the people of the Small Island Developing States to adapt to the impact of climate change.”

Sopoaga stressed that the forthcoming replenishment round of the GCF should not be undercut by the decision of Australia and the United States to abandon the global climate funding mechanism: “The announcement of additional funding by Australia is there, but certainly my hope is that it will not go to undermining what is needed in the global context.”

Some countries may regard the Australian approach as divide and rule, given many island leaders want the region to speak with a common voice, especially in the lead up the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in September. The decision by PSIDS to release the Tuvalu Declaration before the final Forum communique is a sign that many island leaders don’t want their strong message to be watered down before the UN summit.

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