Back to the drawing board

For the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), COP25 in Spain was viewed with great optimism and hope. A number of issues and developments contributed to that frame of mind. However, the Conference proved a disappointment. In the light of that setback, PIF needs to pursue additional approaches that are more oriented toward progress through effective collective advocacy and tactical factional initiatives that can fuel and propel global actions.

Leading up to COP25, PIF Leaders released ‘The Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now’ at their annual summit in Tuvalu. It was enthusiastically promoted as “a signal of our strength.” Kainaki II, for instance, is a recapitulation of the climate change issues contained in the Boe Declaration adopted by PIF Leaders the year before in Nauru. The Boe Declaration, for the first time, had reaffirmed “that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific.”

The Kainaki II Declaration raised the aspirational bar a bith igher through its reference to “the climate change crisis” which even Australia was happy to endorse. As it turned out, Australia endorsed the critical phraseology not only once, but  twice – in the same Declaration. Such endorsement would have been a source for self-congratulation for the Forum Leaders given that Australia is generally viewed in the region as a problematic climate change dissident. This hard-toget sign of unity obviously fuelled great enthusiasm in the region to the extent that Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor elevated the Declaration to ‘the strongest statement the Pacific islands Forum has ever issued collectively’.

The Forum’s pre-COP25 excitement was further heightened by the action of the COP25 Chilean Presidency. The Presidency is a strong advocate for the need to address the nexus between oceans and climate change. The Presidency thus coined COP25 as ‘the Blue COP’. This was enthusiastically taken up by Spain, who hosted the Conference under a partnership arrangement with Chile. Given the Forum’s position on the oceans and the Forum Secretariat’s role as the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner, the added sobriquet  to COP25 as ‘the Blue COP’ should have been manna from heaven. The ‘EU Ocean Day’, celebrated during The Blue COP in Madrid should have been the icing on the cake.

But it was not to be. The Blue COP was a disappointment. The Fiji Times of 23 December 2019 carried an article: ‘COP25 issue: PIF members express disappointment.’ PIF Chair and Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea  Natano said “the lack of ambition and urgency on climate action emanating from COP25 was very concerning, particularly for small island nations on the frontlines of the present climate crisis.”

It was evident that that the ‘climate change crisis’ that PIF Leaders took to Madrid as a rallying cry for greater commitment to the Paris Declaration fell on deaf ears. Prime Minister Natano articulated the frustration of PIF leaders: “It is disheartening that our collective political commitment and resolve, as the Pacific Islands Forum, was not upheld by the parties to this declaration, where it mattered most – that is in the negotiating rooms in Madrid.”

A useful takeaway from the situation above is that the PIF message is not being heard nor appreciated by the Parties to the Conference. Conference regulars are either not attuned to the PIF message or they suffer from selective hearing. In the context of global conferences – large and impersonal, it is easy to imagine that either of these prospects could be the case.

On the other hand, the PIF message may not be forcibly articulated sufficiently. There can be a number of reasons for this. It is interesting to note however that in looking forward to COP26, the PIF Chair is calling on his fellow leaders “to reaffirm and uphold the commitment that we have made through the Kainaki Declaration and strive for ambitious climate action that positively responds to the indisputable scientific evidence that has been presented (to) us through the special IPCC reports.”

Will COP26 and subsequent ones be any different? It is difficult to be optimistic. Instead of flogging a dead horse at this multilateral level, PIF is best to change tack. It should divert some of its energy to seeking strong and supportive advocacy of its ‘climate change crisis’ message to other forms of multilateralism and even plurilateralism that are lot more attuned to listening and appreciating this message and are more likely to orchestrate with ease the forces of their advocacy in support. This can then carry over to the global conferences.

Engagements in North-South, South-South and Triangular Co-operations present specific opportunities for PIF to step up its game and win some kudos for its laudable stance on climate change.

North-South Cooperation by way of the ACP-EU Cooperation beckons immediately given the current negotiations for a new agreement to replace the Cotonou Agreement. In this context, PACP States in PIF are negotiating directly with the EU for a Pacific-EU Protocol. The timing is perfect. ACP States at their Nairobi summit last December agreed to ‘A Transformed ACP Committed to Multilateralism.’ As can be imagined, PIF can advance its stance on climate change through eliciting the support of the ACP Group as a whole and also directly with the EU via the Pacific-EU Protocol under negotiations.

As regards South-South Co-operations, PIF, again, can elicit joint advocacy on its climate change stance either through the collective action of the ACP Group cooperating with other large South groups or through its own effort by cooperating on the basis of inter-regional south-south co-operations. The UN Office for South-South Co-operation (UNOSSC) is particularly active in facilitating this area of collaborative development. It is interesting to note that the Regional Coordinator of UNOSSC (Asia–Pacific), Mr. Denis Nkala paid a visit to the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) early in January this year. Mr Nkala also discussed the prospect of Triangular Cooperation.

Triangular Cooperation offers exciting prospects as well. The choice of partners can be specific to their respective commitment to climate change. The prospects and opportunities of a configuration comprising, say, of two youth groups cooperating triangularly with either a developed country partner or a multilateral organisation can be a source of great regional satisfaction.

For PIF, there is nothing to lose. It can only stand to gain if all through its multifaceted efforts as suggested above, there begins a concerted effort by the international community to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as set out in the Paris Agreement. Only then can the Blue Pacific continent safely exist.

The author is a former Fijian ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.