Pacific Islands Forum Facing Climate Realities

“Our islands are like the jewels in a blue crown and, like the diversity of colour, shape and types of jewels, our islands embody the uniqueness of our cultures and way of life and the surrounding ocean that sustains us and connects us.” – Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna

Too much of the hype surrounding the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum meetings in Rarotonga, Cook Islands has focused on the prospective visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the struggle for influence between the US and China in the South Pacific region.  The theme for this Leader’s Forum, Large Ocean Island States – the Pacific Challenge, deserves far more attention as Pacific Island nations work on creating and maintaining a sustainable Pacific environment.  The Forum Island Countries (FICs) are at the forefront of not only the effects of climate change, but also the solutions and coping mechanisms.  Therefore the agreements forged during this week’s meetings will be a critical test of the region’s resolve to continue the momentum of achievements and to serve as an example for future regional collaboration in other parts of the world.     

Climate change has been central to the Pacific Islands Forum agendas in recent years.  In 2009 the Leaders launched a Call to Action, stating “For Pacific Island states, climate change is the great challenge of our time. It threatens not only our livelihoods and living standards, but the very viability of some of our communities. Though the role of Pacific Island States in the causes of climate change is small, the impact on them is great.”  Involving both mitigation and adaptation efforts to overcome threats caused by climate change, the Pacific Islands Forum has advocated for international assistance to support the small island states.

Launched in May 2009 at the Pacific Island Leaders Meeting (PALM) in Japan, the Pacific Environment Community Fund has proved to be a successful catalyst to facilitate sustainable development and to combat the negative effects of climate change in the region.  At the launch, Japan provided a ¥6.8billion (approximately USD$66 million) contribution to Forum Island Countries for environmental issues. According to the program, “each FIC is provided with an indicative allocation of USD$4million to support projects with a focus on the provision of solar power generation systems and sea water desalination plants or a combination of both.”  The governments of Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu have utilized the PEC Fund, with Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia still working on agreements for local projects.

In the same way that sustainable, equitable trade is a factor in the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations, New Zealand has emphasized sustainable development and renewable energy in particular as part of its NZ Aid Programme.  This was highlighted in last year’s Forum dialogue in Auckland.  The NZ government is providing NZ$7 million to Tokelau to install solar power systems which will provide almost 100 percent of the energy needs for the state’s over 1,400 residents.  With international assistance, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu are all undertaking projects in renewable energy.

One of the most ambitious and pioneering plans has been the Pacific Oceanscape, envisioned by His Excellency Anote Tong, President of Kiribati.  It is a framework for creating marine protected areas and a mindset “to ensure in perpetuity the health and wellbeing of our oceans and ourselves.” I highly recommend watching the Pacific Oceanscape video.  The project has been closely supported by Conservation International, including the FICs’ programs The Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the Micronesia Challenge, and the Cook Islands Marine Park.  During this session of the Pacific Islands Forum, the Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna is expected to announce the opening of country’s Marine Park, which includes about half of its exclusive economic zone.

In thinking practically and further ahead, the Kiribati government is working on a contingency plan to move its entire population abroad.  In March this year, Kiribati President Anote Tong was in talks with the government of Fiji to purchase 5,000 acres of land as an ‘investment’, to provide a new home for its 113,000 residents.  Currently, Kiribati is about two meters above sea level.  Part of the plan for “migration with dignity” includes educating and training its population so Kiribati residents have skills desired by other Pacific states, including Australia and New Zealand.

The Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ meetings and smaller workshops surrounding the main events are about education and dealing with the challenges and opportunities within the region.  While globalization and improved transportation has facilitated the communication and trade levels among Forum states, the effects of climate change, increasing energy costs, overfishing, coral bleaching and geopolitical challenges have appeared to harden the resolve of Forum states.  With so many positive sustainable development and energy-related projects lined up (and hopefully more to be announced this week) the outcomes of the 43rd meeting in the Cook Islands should be watched not because the US and China will be battling for their attention, but because these small islands in the Pacific are among the first to ambitiously battle for their own survival in the face of threats to their homes (by rising sea levels) and livelihoods (by overfishing and coral bleaching).

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