Washington Should Seek a Climate Change Consensus with Pacific Islands
October 9, 2014
It isn’t often that speakers at the United Nations get standing ovations, but that is what Marshall Islands poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, 26, received at the September 23 UN Climate Summit in New York after reading a haunting poem addressed to her seven-month-old daughter. In the poem she pledges to protect her daughter from the threat of climate change, which she warns is being ignored by world leaders. An official UN Twitter account said Jetnil-Kijiner moved many world leaders in the audience to tears.
Speaking separately to the summit via video, Marshall Islands president Christopher Loeak, standing in front of his house around which he recently raised a seawall, declared, “Out here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, climate change has arrived.” Like other Pacific Island leaders, Loeak, who presides over a nation of 22 low-lying atolls, wants to sound an alarm to world leaders that the Pacific Islands are the “canary in the coal mine” of climate change.
Notably absent among the 125 world leaders attending the UN summit was Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, who in July followed through on an election campaign pledge to repeal his country’s carbon tax against the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.
The UN summit followed the once-in-a-decade International Conference on Small Island and Developing States (SIDS) hosted by Samoa in early September and attended by 21 heads of state and government. Donors pledged $1.9 billion in sustainable development projects and launched nearly 300 partnerships between governments, businesses, civil society, and UN bodies in areas ranging from climate change and disaster risk management to sustainable energy and ocean health. The participants sharply criticized both developed and developing countries for not doing enough to tackle climate change and demanded that the world start paying more attention to the cataclysmic impact on their islands.
One outcome of the SIDS conference was a renewed focus on maintaining sustainable fisheries. The pressure on global fish stocks comes from many of the same factors that contribute to climate change: a growing population, carbon emissions, and ocean acidification. However, achieving sustainable fisheries also requires careful quota management, implementation of best practices, and policing of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
Similar themes were sounded during the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), which was held in the Marshall Islands immediately following the SIDS conference. Participants pledged to be “climate leaders” and called on other nations to “phase down greenhouse gas pollution.”
In June, Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a two-day conference in Washington aimed at saving the globe’s oceans. With actor Leonardo DiCaprio by his side, Kerry warned in speeches and interviews that the world’s oceans are in peril. The secretary said that protecting the oceans is “a vital security issue involving the movement of people, the livelihood of people, the capacity of people to exist and live where they live today.”
Participants at the conference from the Pacific Islands included Kiribati president Anote Tong and Palau president Tommy Remengesau. Kerry told participants that nearly $2 billion had been pledged in response to the conference to protect oceans. President Barack Obama declared that his administration would expand protection of the central Pacific Ocean by restricting fishing and energy exploration within almost 800,000 square miles.
Secretary Kerry visited the Solomon Islands in August just ahead of the PIF and SIDS conferences. “I just came from the Solomon Islands yesterday, a thousand islands, some of which could be wiped out if we don’t make the right choices,” Kerry said. “I saw with my own eyes what sea level rise would do to parts of it: It would be devastating.”
Kerry said that in response to these concerns the United States has deepened its partnerships with Pacific Island nations to meet the immediate threats and long-term development challenges of the region. He pointed out that the U.S. Agency for International Development had launched projects to increase the resilience of Pacific Island communities and that Washington had signed new maritime boundaries with Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia to promote good governance and peaceful relations between island states.
Obama told the UN Climate Summit in September that the United States and China, as the world’s top carbon-dioxide emitters, have a responsibility to spearhead new efforts to rein in emissions. The president said that the United States would play a leadership role in a new round of climate change talks, despite the uncertain commitments by some countries and opposition at home by some in Congress and the U.S. business community who argue that the controls will be costly and are based on still-unfinished scientific analysis.
“Nobody gets a pass,” Obama said. “We will do our part, and we’ll help developing nations do theirs.”
The president will get an opportunity at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris next year to take a leadership role in once again seeking to achieve a binding agreement on combatting climate change. President Obama’s Climate Action Plan already demonstrates a credible commitment to carbon reduction, but if the United States is going to apply pressure to other countries to do more it will need to raise the stakes across the board. Washington will also need to work in concert with those nations on the front lines of the fight against climate change—small-island developing states.
The Pacific Islands this year have seized the mantel of leadership on climate change, and the Marshall Islands foremost among them. This should carry additional weight for U.S. policymakers, as the Marshalls are in a compact of free association with the United States. As with Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, the United States has a close, longstanding, and mutually beneficial relationship with the Republic of the Marshall Islands and is responsible for its protection.
This means Washington is in a uniquely capable position to work with the Marshalls and other Pacific Islands ahead of next year’s UN climate conference. Doing so will ensure that the United States’ negotiating position reflects the concerns and needs of those nations most threatened by climate change. It will also amplify the voices of small-island states at the conference, lend the United States some of the moral force exhibited by the Pacific Islands in recent months, and help cajole other nations to join the effort against climate change.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)
Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. James Hurndell is a researcher with the Pacific Partners Initiative.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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