May 16, 2021 Last Updated 6:06 PM, May 14, 2021

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

Swimming in rising waters

By Nic Maclellan (Islands Business magazine) in Funafuti, Tuvalu

As Pacific leaders and officials begin arriving for the 50th Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, they’re greeted by Tuvaluan children waving flags. But the children are seated in water, symbolising the rising tide that threatens the vulnerable atoll nation.

The forecourt of Funafuti airport has been transformed, with the creation of a symbolic village on a small island, surrounded by water. As dignitaries arrive, they must walk past young children immersed in water, waving the national flags of Forum member countries.

It’s the first time since 1984 that Tuvalu has hosted the Pacific Islands Forum. But for the Polynesian nation of just 11,000 people, whose land is just metres about sea level, it’s an important moment to raise awareness of the challenge of climate change.

Arriving leaders are directed to a notice: “Before us we see the devastating effects of climate change on our children: sea level rising, land erosion, cyclone damage. Threats such as these are ever present for Pacific island nations. In your meetings this week, remember: we must act before it is too late, we must save Tuvalu to save the world.”

Young people in Tuvalu are also having their say, organising a Climate Youth Forum on 1-2 August. Youth delegates have presented Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga with the “Funafuti Youth Declaration on Climate Change”, calling on the government to declare a state of Climate Change emergency.

The youth declaration states: “We are facing a climate change crisis and urgently call on governments, representatives of industry and individuals to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas pollution and to reduce their carbon footprint…. Food and water security is critical for all of us and we all must take action to ensure our future. It is our firm belief that we have a future on our islands and will not give up.”

The youth delegates propose a range of initiatives, including: strategies for train the trainers in climate change awareness and actions; bans on the use of single use plastics; post-trauma counselling for people who have suffered from the impacts of climate change; and the creation of a Tuvalu Cultural Day to be held once a month “where the use of motorbikes and other petrol vehicles be banned and where we all eat local foods, such as fish caught from traditional methods, and to include cultural training to build the understanding of youth.”

Solidarity across the region

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be attending this week’s regional summit for the first time, as part of his policy dubbed the “Pacific step-up.” Australia is the largest Forum member and a crucial development partner with Forum island countries. But there are stark differences over climate policy, given the lack of ambition in Australian targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions, Canberra’s failure to pay its fair share of the 2020 global target for climate finance, and the Morrison government’s support for the expansion of coal mining and exports.

Speaking to journalists before this week’s Forum meeting, Tuvalu Prime Minister Epele Sopoaga stressed that the regional summit would aim to build solidarity between Forum member states, despite the gulf in climate policy between Australia and its island neighbours.

“I think it is critical that we try to enhance or ‘step up’ our commitment to solidarity, working together on our common goals that we share,” Sopoaga said. “Where we differ, probably those issues could be left for experts to deal with at operational levels. But we really need to step up our leadership solidarity, taking account of the achievements we’ve done over the past years. I’m totally committed to further building the trust and respect amongst the leaders and the nations.”

Prime Minister Sopoaga stressed the importance of the humanitarian impacts of climate change, and the many ways that the largest Forum members are inter-twined with their smaller Pacific neighbours. He noted that there were large Pasifika diaspora communities in Australia and New Zealand, but also many Australians and Kiwis – “your children and grandchildren” – working and living in the islands.

“We have to remind Morrison that Australians include Tuvaluans as well,” he said. “There are Tuvaluan families there in Australia. There are huge communities of Polynesians and other Pacific Islanders in New Zealand. Scott Morrison, you have amongst your country Tuvaluans, Fijians, all countries that are represented here in the Pacific.

“Your policies about coal mining, releasing greenhouse gasses – regardless of how much money you give in the ‘step-up’ policy, it doesn’t mean anything. Why? Because you are helping to have serious implications on your own people who are living in Tuvalu and Kiribati.”

Sopoaga argued for a focus on the direct impacts of climate change, and the need for leadership in climate action.

“We need to bring these people connections more visible to the leaders, so they are not driven by the politics of the unions back in Australia or by the industry and Adani coal mining,” he said. “Bring the real effects on people on the ground to the attention of these leaders. If they don’t accept it, I don’t think we can call them leaders. I don’t think they are serious about saving the people, their own people.”    

Resisting climate displacement

Neighbouring island countries such as Kiribati have discussed the concept of “migration with dignity”, offering opportunities to migrate for people displaced by the adverse effects of climate change. But Sopoaga stressed that his nation was not ready to accept this fate.

“We in Tuvalu have been trying to build the trust and conviction that we can still do something – not to give up, but to do something to save the islands, to save Tuvalu,” he said. “We believe that relocation is going to be a cheap cost to those who caused global warming and climate change.”

He noted: “It will be so easy for them to pass a resolution in the United Nations: ‘We resolve to look for money to relocate these guys to somewhere safe.’ But there is nowhere safe in the world because of climate change.

“I think for such a resolution to be brought up in the UN, it’s immoral and inhuman, and will not stop the causes of climate change. I think it’s self-defeating and therefore in Tuvalu we say ‘No, we are going to stay!’”  

On 12 August, the day before the formal opening of the Pacific Islands Forum, the host government has organised a Sautalaga dialogue, to look at responses to the global challenge of climate change. The climate debate will then be a feature of the official summit, from 13-16 August.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be at this year’s Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Tuvalu, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne says she is keen to get to Papua New Guinea soon “to  visit our new friends in government.”

Minister Payne made the comments in a speech before media and diplomats at a Press Club lunch in Suva today.

The Minister was in Fiji  just a week after being sworn in as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women, following the Liberal/National coalition’s win in Australia’s recent federal election. This week Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also been in Solomon Islands, meeting with the new government of Manasseh Sogavare.

Minister Payne says both visits show the importance of the Pacific islands to Australia.

She revealed that Australia has begun work on a joint trade and economic scoping study to look at creating more opportunity for Australia and Fijian businesses.

“That work began literally last week and is going to be finalised by the end of July. I very much look forward to the findings of the independent team that will shortly be in Fiji to engage with government and the business community.”

Australia’s record on climate change and the lack of ambition in its targets to cut emissions has been widely criticised by Pacific leaders. However today Payne said: “For Australia’s part, we are on track to meet – indeed to exceed – our commitments to the year 2020 under the Paris Agreement, and making progress towards our 2030 target,” while also commending Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama for his leadership in climate change negotiations.

Minister Payne’s program also involved visits to the Blackrock Camp in Nadi, breakfast with female MPs, and a meeting with advocates against gender based violence at the House of Sarah.

Details of a possible visit to meet with PNG’s new Prime Minister, James Marape and his cabinet, will be announced at a later date.

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