It’s taken 70 years but some of the life is slowly coming back around Bikini atoll, ravaged by the United States’ nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands immediately after World War Two.
For a team from the National Geographic Pristine Seas project, it’s a study in contrasts to visit Bikini and another neighbouring atoll impacted by the bombs. And then to take in two remote atolls that are 60 hours by boat from the capital, Majuro, earmarked by the government for protection.
As part of a five-year effort to help local communities and their governments protect the ocean, the Pristine Seas researchers are working with the Marshallese government and regional leaders to find out more about these safe harbours for whales, sharks, turtles, and countless fish and birds, with an eye toward protecting them.
The Marshallese conservation plans are in keeping with how it has developed one of the most sustainably managed tuna stocks in the world.
For Dr Alan Friedlander, chief scientist with the expedition, the Marshalls represent what the world could look like if the planet’s sustainability was a common goal.
“We can be very self absorbed and not be aware of our surroundings,” Dr Friedlander said in an interview with Islands Business.
“It’s always the danger of, you know, the pot of water that boils and they don’t know until it’s too late,” he said, referencing the analogy of the frog sitting in the slowly warming pot of water, oblivious to the growing danger.
“So, we have to be cognisant of that. Marshall Islands is an example of things that can go wrong very quickly, but it’s also signs of hope in some of these remote places – what the world could look like – if we take a step back and think about what sustainability looks like, but more importantly what sustainability means. And it means different things to different people. But at some point, we need to be at least on the same page about what’s the scale of impacts that the planet can absorb.”
Dr Austin Kerby runs Corals for Conservation, a Fiji-based not-for-profit organisation that works with communities, the tourism industry, and NGOs on coral reef restoration for climate change adaptation.
A pioneer in the field of coral reef restoration, Dr Kerby has been working for over 30 years to establish coral nurseries and restoration sites across the Pacific and Caribbean because coral reefs will be “the first marine ecosystem to collapse from rapidly warming seas in the coming few decades. This vital and most diverse marine ecosystem on Earth is now on the front-line of the present environmental crisis,” the Corals for Conservation website reads.
He reckons we’re beyond what National Geographic’s Dr Friedlander referred to as “the scale of impacts that the planet can absorb”.
“The earth’s thermostat broke in March,” he told Islands Business on the sidelines of a regional symposium on ocean science in the Pacific.
Which is why he believes the ocean thermal spike should top the COP28 agenda.
“Most people don’t know that. It hasn’t been going out on the news properly. But something happened to the earth’s temperature. It started in the ocean, not in the atmosphere, which is kind of strange.
“In March, the temperature started going up and off-scale, unprecedented. Every year it’s going a little higher from climate change. But now it’s broken away from where it should be and it’s way up. It’s five standard deviations above the mean. And it’s never happened before in history, and people don’t know exactly why.”
Dr Kerby’s assessment of the trend is a grim one.
“Somehow, Mother Nature has accelerated the problem to the point where it’s like we’ve accelerated 20 years into the future. This is no longer 2023 for climate change. This is 2033 or 2043. We are somewhere in between.
“So, what’s happening in the Caribbean? They’ve had 38-degree water. That’s hot tub water. And anything higher than that can kill people if they stay there for 10 minutes. So, 38 degrees kills the corals and the fish. Now that hot water is in Cuba and going to Belize and all the Caribbean.
“People are praying for cyclones now to cool off the water because we’re having a mass extinction event of corals in the Caribbean. And guess what? It’s coming our way. It’s coming to Kiribati.”
Opening the gates of hell
“Humanity has opened the gates of hell,” were the stark, opening words from United Nations Secretary-General, Atonio Guterres when he convened the Climate Ambition Summit during the UN General Assembly in New York in September.
A long-fractured global agenda over the greatest existential threat to the planet finally seemed to hit that elusive common note at the Summit, when Guterres put fossil fuel producers on notice – to huge applause from the pro-climate, anti-fossil fuel lobby.
“The move from fossil fuels to renewables is happening – but we are decades behind,” said Guterres.
“We must make up time lost to foot-dragging, arm-twisting and the naked greed of entrenched interests raking in billions from fossil fuels.”
The UN head drew widespread applause from the heads of the world’s major climate activist bodies who were among the “first movers and doers” at the summit – those leaders who had responded to the Secretary-General’s call for accelerated action to tackle the climate crisis.
Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa, who spoke on behalf of civil society at the Summit, said the UN Secretary-General needed to be applauded for offering “his convening power and his rhetorical force” to end 35 years of avoiding the elephant in the room.
“What Guterres, through this climate ambition summit has offered the world, is an opportunity for us not to just address the symptoms, but actually go after big oil – coal and gas, so that we can be able to phase out fossil fuels and rapidly phase in renewables. And in the process, address the energy poverty that the world is facing.”
Jean Su, Co-Chairwoman of Climate Action Network-International, the world’s largest network of climate organisations, said the summit was unprecedented in the international context.
“This is an unprecedented moment in our climate framework. Neither the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) nor the Paris Agreement recognised fossil fuels. So today, the UN Secretary-General has broken a barrier … a glass ceiling,” said Su.
Upping the ante
Guterres upped the ante when he precluded his climate ambition summit from becoming the usual talk fest, by inviting only the “first movers and doers” – countries that were committing to strong action on climate change. Those who were not invited to speak included the world’s two top polluters – the United States and China. U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, John Kerry was in the audience but was not given a place at the podium.
Adow was keen to observe that Gutteres had deviated from the conventions of international diplomacy.
“What we’ve seen now is a Secretary-General who is happy not to pull punches and that for a politician is effectively withdrawing the mic,” he said.
“We know how much they love the mic and the world stage to be able to actually sell us their pitiful offering. This strategy that the UN Secretary General has employed in New York this time, has effectively denied the mic to every country that has nothing to offer. Now they have to earn the right to speak to the world by actually offering more credible, more ambitious climate action.”
The moment was framed as a decisive victory for small island states who’ve been pushing for a clampdown on fossil fuel production.
Adow and the other leaders of the world’s biggest climate activist groups issued their responses to Gutteres’ remarks at a media conference at the UN hosted by Vanuatu’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Odo Tevi.
Last year, Tuvalu’s Prime Minister, Kausea Natano called for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty at COP27, while Vanuatu became the first country to call for the treaty at the UN General Assembly.
Actress and climate activist Jane Fonda and Tzeporah Berman of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative flanked Tevi alongside other leading global climate campaigners at the media event as they welcomed the breakthrough.
“For the first time, the industry has been dragged centre stage and exposed for being the heart of the problem,” said Berman. “We can and we will build a coalition of countries designing a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to stop the expansion and ensure an equitable wind down that is fast, fair, and financed. The fossil fuel industry won’t be invited to the negotiating table. It’s clear that they will not manage their own decline. They have manipulated climate negotiations for decades and lied to us, it’s time to stop negotiating with them and start regulating them,” she told reporters.
This was clearly a moment of buoyancy in decades of feet-shuffling climate negotiations on the world stage, especially when the “overriding failure” of COP27 last year was described in a final report on the meeting as “the lack of a clear agreement to phase out fossil fuels”.
The report by the United Kingdom-based Environmental Investigation Agency, which covertly investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuse, said that “despite the support of 80 countries to include a phase-down of fossil fuels in the text, it didn’t make it to the final political decision – [and was] shut down by major exporting countries.”
“In March, the temperature started going up and
off-scale, unprecedented. Every year, it’s going a
little higher from climate change. But now, it’s broken
away from where it should be and it’s way up. It’s five
standard deviations above the mean. And it’s never
happened before in history, and people don’t know
Dr Austin Kerby, coral reef restoration pioneer in the Pacific and Caribbean for more than 30 years.
These developments have put the focus squarely on decisive action against fossil fuel production and accelerating the transition to clean energy at the upcoming COP28 meeting from November 30 to December 12 in Dubai.
Outlining a comprehensive plan for this year’s COP in a letter to delegates in July, COP28 President-Designate and the United Arab Emirates’ Special Envoy for Climate Change, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber appeared to Guterres head-on by calling out the need to “reinvigorate the [COP] process and restore hope through collective action”.
Al Jaber said the “importance of collective action has never been clearer. No country, company, or individual can address a challenge of this scale alone.”
Al Jaber’s rhetoric may be pitched perfectly but his plans to include oil and gas companies from around the world more fully at the meeting this year has already framed problematic perceptions – especially when he heads the national oil company in the United Arab Emirates.
Dr Alan Friedlander, chief scientist with the National Geographic Pristine Seas project
Photo: Steve Spence, National Geographic Pristine Seas
The COP meetings have come to be viewed with skepticism for their failure to meet the climate challenge satisfactorily. While the Pacific has achieved some important outcomes in climate diplomacy, the trips to the meetings by government delegations are seen by many across the region as just one more taxpayer-funded junket.
“There’s nothing like a thousand people flying around the world to say, ‘save the planet’. So many meetings. So much self congratulation. Not enough change. Of course, we would be worse off if there were no meetings, but the COP## have turned into a media show and a platform for political statements.”
A major review of the world’s climate actions since the 2015 Paris Agreement concludes at COP28 – and serves to define the COP28 agenda.
The two-year Global Stock Take (GST) of the Paris Agreement, launched at the COP26 in Glasgow, will assess the world’s collective progress towards achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Released in September, a key technical report on this first GST found that while parties to the 2015 Paris Agreement have taken widespread actions to address climate change and its impacts, ambition and implementation must be accelerated rapidly.
Responding to the findings, Al Jaber said that “to keep 1.5 within reach we must act with ambition and urgency to reduce emissions by 43% by 2030.”
He said it was possible to deliver on the ambitious agenda of fast-tracking the energy transition, fixing climate finance, focusing on people lives and livelihoods, and “underpinning everything with full inclusivity”, but “we must urgently disrupt business as usual and unite like never before to move from ambition to action and from rhetoric to real results.”
Sepesa Rasili, Senior Campaigner with Greenpeace Australia Pacific
Photo: Greenpeace/Island Roots
In his letter to delegates, he proposed an ambitious, four-part plan for COP28:
- Fast-tracking the energy transition and slashing emissions before 2030;
- Transforming climate finance, by delivering on old promises and setting the framework for a new deal on finance;
- Putting nature, people, lives, and livelihoods at the heart of climate action;
- Mobilising for the most inclusive COP ever.
Richie Merzian, International Director of Smart Energy Council, the peak independent body for Australia’s smart energy industry, is not overly optimistic about any outcomes on the fossil fuel issue at this year’s COP.
“The COP28 President stated the fossil fuel phase-out is inevitable. What is missing is a timeline for how quickly fossil fuels need to phase out. The first step is to stop making the problem worse – no new coal, oil or gas mines should be approved. Unfortunately, I don’t think this will be on the COP agenda this year,” Merzian told Islands Business.
“We are looking to pursue legal avenues
to further push the throttle or push the envelope as far as climate ambition and action is concerned.”
Vanuatu’s Permanent Representative
to the United Nations, Odo Tevi
In response to questions from this magazine, Odo Tevi, Vanuatu’s Permanent Representative to the UN, said addressing the root cause of climate change means phasing out fossil fuels and enabling an accelerated global just transition.
“This will be contentious and there will be stiff opposition in particular from economies that are heavily dependent on fossil fuels,” said Tevi.
Sepesa Rasili, Senior Campaigner with Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said the watering down of language in the lead-up to COP28 is “very concerning, for example ‘phasing down demand for fossil fuels’, rather than what we actually need — a firm commitment to ending all new fossil fuels.”.
Rasili pointed to Australia, the world’s third largest exporter of fossil fuels and which has 116 fossil fuel projects in the pipeline, with the government approving its fourth new coal mine this year.
“It’s clear that while the Australian government wants to stand ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ with the Pacific, it is not listening to what the Pacific is saying — and that is no new coal and gas, no fossil fuel subsidies, and a commitment to a Loss and Damage mechanism that is fair and places the human rights of the community at its center,” he told Islands Business.
If anything, the natural progression for COP28 will be to follow on from the COP27 decision to establish and operationalise a loss and damage fund, particularly for nations most vulnerable to the climate crisis.
Merzian said if a COP is brought to the Pacific region in 2026, “which is looking likely, then we can make sure that at a Pacific COP31, fossil fuel phase-out is the number one item on the agenda. It’s why the Smart Energy Council full supports the [Australian government] bid for COP31 in our region.”
He said investors and renewable energy developers are “lined up, ready to go”, to transition the Australian grid to renewables but the government is bogged down in regulatory barriers and delays. “What we need is bold leadership from the Australian government to treat global warming like a crisis and transition with the urgency required. And it should be fully committed to helping its neighbours do the same.”
He suggested that discussions by Pacific Island Forum (PIF) Energy Ministers of a proposal for a Pacific Energy Commissioner would be a useful next step to delivering energy security and renewable energy to the Pacific.
“We would like to see this on the agenda for the PIF Leaders in November in the Cook Islands,” he said.
Odo Tevi, Vanuatu’s Permanent Representative to the UN, acknowledges that while the COP process is an important one because it brings everyone to the table to collectively address humanity’s most pressing challenge, “it has also been a frustrating process, but our only hope is in the multilateral process.”
In mid-September, Vanuatu and Tuvalu were among a group of small island nations that also included the Bahamas, Antigua, and Barbuda, that asked the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) to determine whether greenhouse gas emissions absorbed by the marine environment should be considered pollution.
The ocean absorbs 25% percent of carbon dioxide emissions, captures 90% percent of the heat caused by those emissions and produces half the world’s oxygen, hence the case is seen as the first climate justice case aimed at protecting the ocean.
Tevi said that should the Tribunal articulate that carbon emissions are indeed a pollutant under the Law of the Sea Convention, this could mean yet another important agreement that could regulate carbon emissions and trigger state responsibility.
Vanuatu has also led a campaign to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion on countries’ obligations to address climate change. The UN General Assembly has voted to refer the case to the ICJ, which will issue an opinion next year.
“We are looking to pursue legal avenues to further push the throttle or push the envelope as far as climate ambition and action is concerned. The clarification of international law through advisory opinions is an important tool to strengthen our understanding of State obligations to deal with the climate crisis,” Tevi told Islands Business.
“An advisory opinion in this case is not intended to single out any specific State or government nor intended to be polarising but rather articulate what it is we need to be doing to better address the climate crisis. And moving beyond just a duty to cooperate under the Paris Agreement.
“We also see the approach of seeking redress from the Courts as a way to enhance the effectiveness of the Paris Agreement and climate governance regime in its’ entirety.”
Said Tony Tevi, head of Vanuatu’s Department of Foreign Affairs’ Maritime Ocean Affairs Division:
“Any country that goes to COP has a high level of expectation and that’s always the case, but the outcomes will be determined by those powerful players. I think what we are aiming at is, we’re trying to use this pathway (litigation) to say, you know, if you don’t do this, there is the ICJ decision, irrespective of what’s going to happen at COP28.
“You don’t go hunting with one arrow, you go with two. So, if you missed one, you still have another arrow there.”
Climate litigation on the up and up
Climate litigation is becoming an integral part of securing climate action and justice, with the number of
climate change court cases more than doubling since 2017, according to findings published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
Released in July 2023, the findings in Global Climate Litigation Report: 2023 Status Review predict a continued upward trend as more cases deal with climate migration, cases brought by indigenous peoples, local communities and other groups disproportionately affected by climate change, and liability following extreme weather events. “Climate policies are far behind what is needed to keep global temperatures below the 1.5°C threshold, with extreme weather events and searing heat already baking our planet,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.
“People are increasingly turning to courts to combat the climate crisis, holding governments and the private sector accountable and making litigation a key mechanism for securing climate action and promoting climate justice.” The total number of climate change cases has more than doubled since a first report on the issue, from 884 in 2017 to 2180 in 2022. While most cases have been brought in the US, climate litigation is a growing trend all over the world, with about 17% of cases now being reported in developing countries, including Small Island Developing States.
“There is a distressingly growing gap between the level of greenhouse gas reductions the world needs to achieve in order to meet its temperature targets, and the actions that governments are actually taking to lower emissions. This inevitably will lead more people to resort to the courts,” said Michael Gerrard, Sabin Center’s Faculty Director. The cases include the voices of vulnerable groups: 34 cases have been brought by and on behalf of children and youth under 25 years old, including by girls as young as seven and nine years of age in Pakistan and India respectively, while in Switzerland, plaintiffs are making their case based on the disproportionate impact of climate change on senior women.