The likelihood of conferences on climate change to be impacted by severe weather events is on the rise. In February 2018, many participants of the Pacific Climate Change Conference were delayed or prevented from arriving in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. We participated in the conference because we understood the grave dangers that lie ahead to local communities and countries if there is no action to prevent a rise in temperature above 1.5 degree Celsius or a focus on adaptation. And, Cyclone Gita strengthened the resolve of academics, physical scientists, consultants, activists, and project planners to press for change. With the Pacific islands at the forefront of climate change, having a conference and community dedicated to showcasing work in the region helps to identify future needs for the most important transnational issue of our age.
Presentations on the world of climate finance, indigenous voices, and the economy provided contradictions in the way these issues are handled by policymakers and academics. First, there is a confusing ‘spaghetti diagram’ of funding models and mechanisms for attaining climate finance. As I’ve written, those that need it the most often have the least human and financial resources to submit project proposals. One presenter provided an example: a proposal for a $9 million project in one Pacific island country took 6 years and $300,000 to complete. Additionally, some overseas development organisations are using access to climate finance in order to climate-proof their existing aid projects.
With panels and a keynote session on indigenous voices, the conference provided a platform to share knowledge and provide suggestions for non-indigenous researchers and policymakers. There was a major call to enable indigenous communities to protect traditional land-based and maritime cultural practices. Their rights to environmental self-determination in New Zealand and elsewhere have been eroded in the face of recommendations from external consultants.
Moreover, there are multiple levels of governance regulating adaptation projects but they are not all connected; in one example, local tourism operators in Samoa were not away of national and regional climate adaptation programs that were intended to benefit the tourism industry. Rather than claiming expertise and recolonizing indigenous practices, Western academics and policymakers should be more inclusive by inviting indigenous communities to the table to showcase examples of holistic approaches to ecosystem and economic planning.
Criticisms were rife of politicians and businesses who have, in Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s words, “discounted the future in place of the present.” Dealing with climate change requires long-term planning and a transformation of lifestyles. Action is hampered by political cycles and people who think we can simply “trade our way out of climate change.” Christopher Wright from the University of Sydney explained how advanced economies have failed to act because neoliberalism both masks capitalism as the problem and exacerbates it by framing business and markets as the solution. Regulatory intervention and promotion of renewables are options, but highly unlikely on a global scale. Rather, he sees divestment and social mobilisation as the most productive paths for society to disrupt the status quo discourse.
Existing international law is also not sufficient to change norms and handle existing crises. Presenters discussed how history has shown that states are not inclined to follow non-binding rules whether or not they relate to fossil fuels. Even when rules are written, such as those around deep sea mining in the Pacific, they are made in the interests of the extractors rather than indigenous and local communities who have rights to their ocean and land.
More questions than answers were posed on the future statehood and rights of those citizens who lose their islands due to climate change. Kiribati and Tuvalu are in line to face these challenges and will rely on goodwill from other nation-states. How will they retain the connection to their culture and sovereignty if their land disappears? New Zealand’s temporary visa scheme is a step forward, but not a permanent solution.
So while problems of political will that stunted progress in climate change work are still present, they are mitigated by airing them out in the open and enabling discussion of alternative solutions.
There is a great and urgent need for action and research on all fronts (top-down and bottom-up, adaptation and mitigation) in the Pacific. The Conference provided hope that there will be more roles, voices, capacity-building, and legal debates for the Pacific.
Participation from political leaders like Samoa Prime Minister Prime Minister Susuga Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, NZ Minister for Climate Change, Hon. James Shaw, NZ Minister for Pacific Peoples, Hon. Aupito Tofae Su’a William Sio, Papua New Guinea Provincial Governor Hon. Gary Juffa alongside grassroots activists the Pacific Climate Warriors, 5 Gyres, Tina Ngata, and well-known researchers Dr. Michael Mann, Aroha Te Pareake Mead, and others showed the real depth of commitment and knowledge in the region.
The Pacific is at the centre of climate change and many participants called for more research for the region and by local experts and communities. It is needed not just for the Pacific islands, but also to monitor things like sea level rise for the rest of the world. Because, as Prime Minister of Tuvalu says, “save Tuvalu and you will save the world.”