In the Face of Climate Change, the Pacific Leads Boldly

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In the Face of Climate Change, the Pacific Leads Boldly

Seven years after the Paris Agreement, Pacific Islanders demonstrate leadership and resolve in the face of the climate crisis.

In the Face of Climate Change, the Pacific Leads Boldly

In this Nov. 5, 2015 file photo, workers build a sea wall on Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Credit: AP Photo/Rob Griffith, File

Several months after The Diplomat Magazine’s first issue, the looming COP21 climate talks promised a watershed in global action on climate change. The resulting Paris Agreement, adopted in December 2015, set out ambitious goals and big promises were made.

Over the years, The Diplomat Magazine has traced the path of climate change across Asia. In Issue 13 (December 2015), which came out as the talks were underway, Nithin Coca explained why COP21 mattered so much for Asia. In concluding, he wrote, “The future of global climate lies in what development paths this region takes going forward.” In that vein, in Issue 36 (November 2017), Neil Bhatiya took stock of the political climate in the lead-up to COP23, noting once more that “the global fight against climate change will be won or lost in Asia.” 

But nowhere are the consequences of climate change more apparent than in the Pacific. In Issue 8 (July 2015), Elizabeth Ferris examined the impact climate change will have on communities in the Pacific, the looming specter of uninhabitable islands and migration. The following year, in Issue 20 (July 2016), Jon Letman took us to the Marshall Islands to see the reality of climate change, in all its myriad forms, up front.

In this issue, Letman returns to the pages of The Diplomat to highlight the work of communities across the Pacific in response to climate change, focusing on their resolve to make the world listen, but simultaneous determination not to wait to take action themselves.

– Catherine Putz

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that the commitment to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius was “nearly going up in smoke.”

The phrase “1.5 to stay alive” was popularized during the 2015 Paris climate conference by the then-Marshall Islands foreign minister, the late Tony de Brum, who championed climate justice for “large ocean states.” 

However, the last eight years have been the hottest on record and climate scientists at Columbia University warn that 2024 is “likely to be off the chart as the warmest year on record.” Current projections indicate a temperature rise up to 2.9 degrees (or higher) by 2100.

In the seven years since 196 countries adopted the Paris Agreement, heavily impacted regions have all been described as being “on the frontlines of climate change.” But even beside a rapidly heating Arctic, drought-stricken Africa, and rain-deluged and fire-ravaged Asia and Europe, the Pacific Islands face existential threats like no others.

With 30,000 islands, the Pacific is home to over 10 million people in coastal cities like Port Moresby, Nouméa, Suva, Auckland, and Honolulu, as well as the world’s most low-lying atoll nations – Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau, and the Marshall Islands.

Pacific Islands are experiencing sea level rise, coastal inundation, drought, coral bleaching, and more frequent and destructive tropical storms, compounding existing challenges rooted in colonialism, militarism, and resource exploitation. 

Even as the climate crisis threatens global health, food and water security, and the survival of entire cultures, languages, and nations, Pacific leaders are demanding the richest, most developed nations take faster, more aggressive action to counter climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In February, Guterres called on the world to halve global emissions this decade by accelerating the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

In a keynote address delivered at an international media conference in Honolulu in June 2022, Senator Hilda Heine, a former president of the Marshall Islands, rejected the one-sided doom and gloom scenario of “drowning” Pacific Islands. She called for more nuanced reporting and greater attention to human rights, local solutions, and the use of sustainable Indigenous practices to address the climate crisis.