U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry kicked off the Pacific Islands Forum, beginning today in the Marshall Islands, telling attendees in a video address that the scientific evidence for climate change is “irrefutable” and “alarming.”
Like the entire Pacific Islands region, the Marshall Islands are a living billboard for the devastating impacts of climate change. In 2004, then-president of the Marshall Islands, Kessai Note, claimed his people could become the world’s first climate refugees. Almost ten years later his country is battling a severe drought in which desalination plants had to be shipped in to supply water. Meanwhile, the capital Marjuro, which sits less than two meters above sea level, was recently swamped by waves that overcame the low-lying coral atoll, causing the airport to close briefly.
Therefore, it is fitting that the Marshall Islands will play host to the 44th Pacific Islands Forum, the theme of which is climate change. The forum is the biggest event the Marshall Islands, a group of 34 atolls with a population of around 60,000 people, has ever hosted. Foreign Affairs Secretary Doreen deBrum told Islands Business that leaders of 13 of the 16 Pacific Islands member countries would be present, with attendees also from the European Union, China, Japan, the United States, as well as the top United Nations climate change envoy.
NIWA’s Pacific Rim manager and climate change expert Doug Ramsay said the Marshalls face a similar outlook to Pacific cousins Kiribati and Tuvalu: a potential worst-case scenario of mass relocations and abandonment as rising seas threaten their people’s livelihoods.
Marshall Islands President and Pacific Islands Forum Chair Christopher Loeak said climate change is the greatest threat facing his country and many others — and he hoped the Majuro Declaration would be a “dynamic platform” for changing attitudes and policies in the region.
The draft declaration, “recognizes the complete insufficiency of current efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the responsibility of all to act urgently to phase-down GHG pollution.” It also, “calls on others to commit to be Climate Leaders by listing specific commitments, targets and actions that contribute more than previous efforts to the urgent phase-down of GHG pollution.”
“Waiting for a new global agreement in 2015 will not be enough,” Loeak told the press. “Accelerating climate action now, and well before 2020, is critical. With global leaders scheduled to come together on climate change in September 2014, now is the time to build our new wave of climate leadership.”
Loeak wrote a strongly worded letter to Secretary Kerry ahead of the forum.
“If the U.S. is serious about rolling up its sleeves and renewing its global leadership on climate change, you will pivot to the Pacific and join us in Majuro,” he wrote.
Having planned to show up on the last day of the talks, Kerry is now busy dealing with a potential U.S.-led military strike on Syria, and has instead sent a lower-ranked official.
Kerry’s video message emphasized that it is vital to help vulnerable nations prepare for the impacts of global warming. Kerry described UN efforts to develop a climate adaptation framework as “very promising,” and said President Obama’s new climate action plan would drive “more aggressive action than ever before.”
A high-powered Australian delegation is also absent from the conference due to the country’s upcoming general election. This makes New Zealand the forum member with the most power, as New Zealand prime minister John Key will lead the largest national delegation of 45 delegates.
Key is part of a conservative New Zealand Government that has opened up land and sea for oil and gas drilling and is generally viewed as uncommitted to getting serious about climate change. Two weeks ago the Government announced an emissions reduction target of five percent below 1990 levels by 2020 — a meager goal, especially in comparison to the EU’s commitment of twenty percent below 1990s levels.
Key defends against that statement by saying New Zealand’s commitment is still bigger than those from the U.S. or Australia.