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South Pacific Islands Lead Fight for Faster Carbon Cuts as UN Prepares for September Summit

Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Wikimedia Commons

South Pacific islands whose very existence is imperiled by climate change continue to use the “moral force” of their endangerment to build consensus on the imperative for swift climate action. With two weeks of mid-year climate negotiations under way in Bonn, Germany, and a United Nations special summit on climate coming up in September, Time Magazine is out with a timely recap of their progress since the 2015 conference that adopted the Paris Agreement.

“Intense storms and flooding have pounded Fiji’s islands, leaving the country to anticipate losing assets worth 5% of its GDP each year, a number expected to grow in the coming decades,” Time reports. In the wake of 2016’s Tropical Cyclone Winston [1], which shredded Fiji’s economy by 20% as it churned across the country, the islands are now bracing themselves for far worse.

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Even as they face down increasingly ferocious storms, rising sea levels, and correspondingly frightened citizens at home, Fiji and its fellow Pacific nations have been punching far above their weight on the world stage, beginning with “leverag[ing] the moral force of their peril to shape the global 2015 Paris Agreement,” Time writes.

“For days, the talks centred on the usual disagreements dividing the geopolitical heavyweights,” with “big developing countries” like India and China wanting the developed world to accept the lion’s share of practical and financial responsibility for the climate crisis, and the U.S. demanding “rigorous reporting rules to ensure that countries like China and India actually kept their climate promises.” Everyone feared a reprise of the Copenhagen debacle.

Critical to breaking the “logjam,” recalls Time, was the coalition of small island states that brokered a deal-making pact with the U.S. State Department: the islands would endorse America’s push for strict reporting requirements, if the Obama administration supported their call to incorporate a 1.5°C climate stabilization target in the final Paris deal.

The final text of the accord called for keeping average global warming “well below 2.0°C”, and ideally to 1.5°C. China and India argued for watering down the deal until the final hours, but declined to use their veto power to block the global compact. “In the end, we outmaneuvered the laggards,” said Farhana Yamin, a negotiator for the Marshall Islands at the time.

They’re still hard at work. Chosen to lead the 2017 UN climate talks in Bonn, on the strength of a bid which included bringing “top officials to Fiji to see the ravages of climate change first hand,” the South Pacific nation of less than one million faced the twin challenges of an incoming Trump administration, “hostile to climate science,” and a European Union distracted by Brexit. Undaunted, Fiji decided the Bonn talks would be guided by the Talanoa Dialogue [3], modelled after its Indigenous tradition of respectful sharing and listening.

In a “strategic decision intended to build bridges at a time when other leaders seemed eager to burn them,” Fiji chose to stress the urgency of the climate crisis, rather than shaming those “that failed to live up to their climate promises.”

Fiji and the other small island states were also scrupulous in declaring their own commitment to cut emissions, with the Cook Islands pledging to be entirely renewable by 2020, the Marshall Islands committing to a 45% emissions cut by 2030, and Fiji promising to eliminate its emissions by 2050. “We are very small emitters, but we cannot afford to be fighting from the rear,” Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama told Time.

Also secured under Fiji’s year-long tenure as COP President was the estimated US$67 billion the world’s wealthiest countries will spend by 2020 to fund climate initiatives in the developing world.

“Though a significant step,” these funds are “far short of the $100 billion that developed countries had previously promised on annual basis,” observes Time.

Even so, the South Pacific’s push for the 1.5°C target “has paid huge dividends in publicity”—and in policy, in the form of last fall’s landmark IPCC report [4] on the difference in climate outcomes at 1.5°C versus 2.0°C average global warming. Its “stark” conclusions—“that the world is dangerously close to climate catastrophe that could impoverish hundreds of millions of people, lead to the disappearance of coral reefs, and expose 10 million additional people to the effects of sea level rise”—were inspiration for America’s Green New Deal, “as well as aggressive new climate plans in a handful of other countries,” says Time.

The news report might also have mentioned the wave of student protest sweeping more than 100 countries around the world, setting a higher level of emergency expectation for decision-makers and triggering a renewed round of tougher climate policies.

Now, though tiny, remote, and poor, the nations of the South Pacific continue to move the needle forward on climate action. Time says their success building consensus for action points to a wise and best practice, “as states around the world turn inward in response to rising populism.”

“Climate change offers an opportunity for multilateralism to prove its value,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres.

Determined to throw the weight of the UN into the climate change fight, with the world still on track for more than 3.0°C average warming based on countries’ Paris commitments, Guterres was in the South Pacific in May, Time notes. He met with national leaders as they “plot their next big step: coordinating a push to make developed countries commit to aggressive new targets for reducing their emissions at a global climate summit to be convened by the UN in New York” in September.

“Working to position the tiny island nations not just as the political centre of the debate, but as its moral centre, too,” Guterres “has divided the September conference into nine segments, including the energy transition, nature-based solutions, climate financing, and carbon pricing,” the magazine notes. Each key topic will be led by co-chairs, one representing a wealthy economy and the other from a developing country facing the urgency of climate change impacts. For example, Jamaica will lead the climate finance segment alongside France, while the Marshall Islands will co-chair the public mobilization section alongside Ireland.

“I know it’s very hard for the Secretary General to get 200 nations to come together and decide on one thing, but we need the political will, the political commitment to fight this,” Bainimarama told Time. “If we don’t get through this, the crisis will turn into chaos, and chaos means the end of the world for us.”

“What we are trying to tell the world is that when we go down, all the cities will go down too,” added Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Malielegaoi. “We are arguing also for the safety of the people of the world.”