May 09, 2021 Last Updated 7:04 AM, May 7, 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

 

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.

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.

By Nic Maclellan in Funafuti

A giant crane hoists the flagpoles into place outside Funafuti’s Sir Tomasi Puapua Convention Centre. Four go up, with another fourteen to go. Tuvalu is getting ready to host the 18 member states of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Around town, workers are putting the finishing touches to new accommodation, kids are shooing dogs off the airport runway, and women are preparing food, flowers and mats. A carver has almost finished the nameplates – shaped like a canoe oar – that will mark the seats for delegations from Australia, New Zealand and sixteen island countries and territories.

“I believe we’re ready”, said Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga. “It’s been a big job, but our people are ready to host the leaders of the Pacific.”

It’s a major exercise for the Polynesian nation of just 11,000 people. Accommodation is at a premium, with Forum delegations joined by representatives from 18 Forum Dialogue Partners, regional organisations, media and civil society groups. Hercules aircraft will ferry delegates from Nadi over the weekend, to support the limited number of commercial flights into the small atoll nation.

There’s a lot of international interest in the annual leaders’ meeting, at a time when regional geopolitics is becoming more heated and complex.

Australia is “stepping up” and New Zealand “resetting” its relationship with Forum island countries. India wants to be an Indo-Pacific player, while the European Union is seeking a new relationship with island countries through a “post-Cotonou” treaty. Taiwan – aligned with host nation Tuvalu – seeks support for greater UN recognition, while the People’s Republic of China comes bearing gifts (and flexing its muscles, joining Indonesia to abstain from a recent resolution at the UN General Assembly on enhancing UN cooperation with the Forum). The United States is sending a large delegation to Funafuti, pledging its commitment to the region and hoping that people have forgotten President Trump is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Meanwhile, island leaders have their own agenda and a number of sensitive topics to resolve.

Promoting the Blue Pacific

At the Apia leaders’ meeting in 2017, the Forum launched a “Blue Pacific” agenda, seeking to develop a regional program on development and sustainability in the ocean environment. This week’s meeting will discuss the development of a “2050 Blue Pacific Strategy”, to look forward on crucial issues around climate, ocean resources, maritime boundaries and fisheries.

Tuvalu’s nine atolls are just metres above sea level, and Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga will showcase climate change as the centrepiece of the meeting. On Monday, Tuvalu will host a Sautalaga dialogue on climate change, with experts addressing loss and damage, the 2018 IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C and the ongoing need for climate finance to address the adverse effects of climate change.

The Tuvalu government has long been promoting a Pacific Island Countries’ Climate Insurance Facility for Smaller Islands States (SIS), to develop regional insurance mechanisms and assist countries to deal with the effects of cyclones, disasters and the slow onset effects of global warming. The eight SIS leaders meet in caucus on Tuesday morning.

A high-level technical working group, including Cook Islands, Samoa, Palau, Fiji and New Zealand has also been refining a proposal for a Pacific Resilience Facility. This regional fund would allocate risk-financing to assist national governments, private sector and local communities to invest in resilience initiatives.

Climate debates

Thursday’s leaders’ retreat, to be held at the Kainaki II Falekaupule (meeting house), will be a first for both Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama. Both will no doubt contribute to the discussion in a lively manner!

After recent visits to Fiji, Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands, Morrison is fond of talking about Australia’s “vuvale” (family) relationship with the Pacific. However, all Forum island countries are looking to widen the security agenda to take account of the existential threat of climate change. Last year’s summit in Nauru issued the Boe Declaration, which recognised that – amongst a range of traditional security concerns – climate change was “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific.”

The Suva-based Forum Secretariat has now developed a draft Action Plan to implement the Boe Declaration. But already, the gap between island priorities and Australia’s position on climate action is widening.

Last month’s Pacific Island Development Forum (PIDF) summit in Fiji issued the “Nadi Bay Declaration on the Climate Change Crisis in the Pacific.” As PIDF chair, Prime Minister Bainimarama will champion the declaration’s proposals for urgent action on the climate emergency, including calls for “coal producers to immediately cease any new mining of coal and develop a strategy for a decadal phase-out and closure of all existing coal production” and “to take immediate measures to relinquish the subsidies to fossil fuel production.”

These are proposals that Canberra will not accept as Forum policy, with the Morrison government currently supporting local and overseas corporations to open up new coal fields in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

The Nadi Declaration also calls for “relevant parties to the Kyoto Protocol” (i.e. Australia and Russia) “to refrain from using ‘carryover credits’ as an abatement for the additional Paris Agreement emissions reduction targets.” Even before Prime Minister Morrison arrives in Tuvalu, this proposal has already been rejected by his government ministers.

There are divisions too on climate finance. Tuvalu is one of many Forum island countries to benefit from funding from the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a global mechanism to provide climate finance to developing countries for climate mitigation and adaptation. In Funafuti, island leaders will promote discussion about next year’s GCF replenishment round, seeking to top up the $10 billion fund with new finance from OECD nations. However, Australia and the United States have both announced that they will not contribute more funding to the GCF, despite pledges from past administrations.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres made an unprecedented visit to the Pacific last May, as part of his agenda on UN reform and climate action. At their meeting in July, Forum Foreign Ministers recommended that “leaders issue a high-level statement or declaration on climate change for the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit”, to be held in New York next month. But given the gulf between Australia and Forum island countries on the need for greater action, a draft Forum declaration has already been through the wringer in several versions. Forum officials met this week in Suva to try and find compromise language to keep everyone happy, but it’s likely the problem will be handballed to the leaders.

Speaking to the plenary of the PIDF summit on 30 July, Prime Minister Bainimarama suggested there will be tough talk at the Forum: “We should not accept anything less than concrete commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions in line with the most ambitious aspirations of the Paris Agreement. We cannot allow climate commitments to be watered down at a meeting hosted in a nation whose very existence is threatened by the rising waters lapping at its shores.”

Regional security

The legacies of nuclear testing, unexploded ordinance and marine pollution will be discussed again in Funafuti. Marshall Islands is concerned about new scientific studies showing ongoing radioactive contamination in foodstuffs in the RMI’s northern atolls, while Solomon Islands has been battling the devastation of an oil spill from a tanker accident in Rennel and Bellona. Tuvalu has declared the 50th Forum meeting as “plastics-free” to highlight the damage to the marine environment of single-use plastics.

In July, Forum Foreign Ministers proposed further action on the radioactive legacies of nuclear testing. There were also tentative moves to investigate how the 1985 Rarotonga Treaty for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone might be modernised.

Once again, the Morrison government is taking a different position to most of Australia’s neighbours in the Pacific and ASEAN. Unlike New Zealand and many Forum island countries, Australia has refused to sign the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Last December, NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hosted a meeting of Pacific signatories, seeking to encourage more Forum member countries to sign and ratify the nuclear abolition initiative (The TPNW will enter into force with fifty ratifications, and is already halfway towards that number, with Samoa, Palau, Vanuatu, New Zealand and Cook Islands amongst the supporters).  

In Canberra, however, members of the Coalition government are promoting a Senate inquiry into establishing a nuclear industry in Australia. Senior security analysts have called for a debate over whether Australia should acquire nuclear weapons, concerned that the United States may one day withdraw its nuclear umbrella from Asia-Pacific allies. Given Australia is a signatory to the Rarotonga Treaty, which bans the development of nuclear weapons, it seems Canberra is once again swimming against the regional tide!

At a time of growing trade and political tensions between the United States and China, Scott Morrison wants Australia to be recognised as the primary security partner for the region, and seeks further integration of the Australian and island economies. The Australian government has been promoting a new Pacific Fusion Centre and expanded support for maritime surveillance, police training and intelligence sharing, but other security and human rights concerns remain on the Forum agenda.

Bougainville is moving towards a referendum on self-determination, and the French Pacific dependency of New Caledonia is likely to hold a second referendum in 2020 (newly elected President Thierry Santa will attend his first leaders’ meeting in Funafuti, seeking closer ties with independent neighbours).

This week, however, discussion on decolonisation, sovereignty and human rights will focus on West Papua.

With members like Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji pressing Indonesia’s case for sovereignty over West Papua, the Forum has focussed instead on promoting dialogue between Jakarta and the United Liberation Movement of West Papua, while calling for action on ongoing human rights violations by Indonesian police and military forces. With strong lobbying from Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu, the Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting recommended to “strongly encourage” Indonesia to finalise the timing of a visit to West Papua by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This debate on self-determination in Bougainville, Kanaky-New Caledonia and West Papua will continue beyond Funafuti, with Vanuatu scheduled to host the 2020 Forum on the 40th anniversary of its independence from Britain and France. Fiji has also put in a bid to host the 2021 summit, and so, after this week’s summit in Funafuti, regional debate on global warming will keep getting hotter.

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