Pacific Islands Forum: Climate of Consensus Before Paris?

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Pacific Islands Forum: Climate of Consensus Before Paris?

The two largest members are being targeted by Pacific Island states worried about climate change.

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders summit began Monday, but even before it did media coverage had the main talking points explained. One would be climate change, and Australia and New Zealand’s perceived inaction. More importantly: building consensus on a united Pacific front before the COP21 talks in Paris.

The forum officially opened in Port Moresby yesterday, although Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neil welcomed members from smaller nations like Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands on Sunday for the Smaller Islands States meeting Monday. Though fisheries and the role of civil society will feature (see an earlier speech on the latter here) the high-level meeting – to be attended by the heads of governments of all member nations save Fiji – will be largely focused on climate change, ahead of December’s COP21 climate talks in Paris. Already Kiribati has asked the region’s two largest nations to “come to the party” and look after the future of smaller Pacific nations, according to Anote Tong.  Indeed, the ABC is reporting that Australia may be asked to leave the forum if the country does not adopt stronger measures on climate change.

The PIF is being held only days after the Pacific Islands Development Forum in Suva, Fiji, where seven nations signed the Suva Declaration on climate change. UN Special Envoy for climate change Mary Robinson attended, saying the Declaration “had urgency” ahead of Paris.

Climate change and the Pacific is a vexed issue for New Zealand and Australia, both of which may be regional super(ish) powers but which still have not earned the total trust of many Pacific nations, Fiji in particular. Even the relationship with PNG, once an Australian colony, has not been entirely comfortable lately, according to the Lowy Institute’s Jenny Hayward-Jones.

In May, Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said Australia was in the “coalition of the selfish” for its non-action on climate change. The European Union, he said, was more committed to helping Pacific nations than Canberra or Wellington.

“We do not see Fiji’s interests reflected in the stance being taken by Australia and New Zealand … especially on the biggest threat to our security we have ever faced collectively as Pacific islanders – the rising sea levels caused by climate change.” Though Fiji’s membership of the PIF has previously been suspended his comments are being echoed now.

In a statement quoted by Australian news Monday, O’Neil said, “The global economy is under pressure and we are seeing an increase in climate induced disasters, so this is a time when countries of like-mind must work together. We in the Pacific did not cause climate change, but we suffer because of it.”

It’s not a new refrain. Many of the Pacific’s smallest nations lie barely above sea level and for years rising seas, and the threat of greater rises, has been more than a policy issue or political problem, but possible longer term life or death. The seek to restrict the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as a two degree rise could swamp many lower lying islands.

At a meeting in Jaipur, India in August, Kiribati’s special envoy was even blunter: “It’s too late for us,” said Teekoa Luta. “Paris we hope will buy us some time, but we are not positive that anything that is achieved in Paris, the outcomes would be in time for us.”

Kiribati and Tuvalu have considered moving citizens or buying up land abroad to grow food. Kiribati already bought land in Fiji as a backup food security plan. Pacific nations are apparently enduring worse inclement weather, such as Vanuatu’s Cyclone Pam earlier this year. Papua New Guinea, whilst not having the same worries as the low lying microstates, is in the middle of its worst drought since 1997; food and water security in some areas is now a problem.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott will attend the Forum today, though it seems unlikely that nations will get much from him on climate change, as Canberra has scaled back many climate initiatives. Australia recently released a new carbon emissions reduction target of a 26-28 percent drop on 2005 levels by 2020. Many other nations have said this is not enough and below international standards. New Zealand’s level is 30 percent.

Australia has also slashed its aid budget by billions recently, although the Pacific remains the largest recipient of Australian aid. Still, according to a review of this recent book about the Marshall Islands, aid does not always help the recent problems related to climate change. Two paragraphs stand out:

“Marshallese today want more but seem to be getting less. Water supplies are contaminated in many places, the copra industry which once provided modest disposable income for those who worked the land has gone south, and the quality of education is not what it once was.”

“Donors may open their hearts and wallets to the Marshalls, but the money given is all too often regarded as a treat to be passed around the table and sampled by everyone rather than for its real purpose. Consultants come in and craft a report outlining reform measures that goes unread and unimplemented.”

However as this article suggests, past simply pushing Australia and New Zealand for better emissions targets, the aim of the forum will be to present a unified Pacific front at COP21 and also a further elucidation of regional agreement and policy on what needs to be done (such as capping the rise in temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius). Whilst much work has been done at smaller, preceding for a, the outcomes of PIF are not yet certain but are nonetheless critical for progress in Paris.