Pacific climate diplomacy and the future relevance of the Pacific Islands Forum

image: Flickr/Global Environment Facility

At the upcoming meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum in Port Moresby on 7–11 September, the Pacific leaders will be asked to consider a unified Forum position on climate change to take to the UN Climate Change summit in Paris in November. At stake in their deliberations is not only the strength of the ‘Pacific voice’ on climate change in the lead-up to the Paris conference, but also the future relevance of the Pacific Islands Forum as the preeminent diplomatic arena for representing matters that are of utmost importance to Pacific island states.

The leaders’ deliberations on this issue will be made against the backdrop of a region-wide determination to put forward a strong and unified position at the Paris conference in support of policies that will ensure the survival of low-lying Pacific island states. While there are several key positions that Pacific states have endorsed in relation to the effects of climate change – for example, in relation to liability for damage, and environmental refugees – the key shared commitment relates to mitigation: the need for emission targets that will reduce the rate of global warming sufficient to ensure the survival of the Pacific island states.

The threshold they have all endorsed on the basis of IPCC analysis [pdf] is keeping warming less than 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels [pdf]. In recent months this policy commitment has featured in efforts, in various regional arenas, to produce a shared Pacific position as a way of signalling to other regional groupings in the lead-up to the Paris conference. (Africa, for example, has also produced a regional declaration supporting emission targets that result in global warming of no greater than 1.5 degrees).

In June, the Oceania 21 Leaders Summit, representing 22 Pacific island states and territories issued the Lifou Declaration [pdf], which calls for ‘an international revolution in the way the world deals with climate change at COP 21’. In June the the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN), a coalition of regional NGOs, agreed on a draft Moresby Declaration, which included the 1.5 degree threshold. This was submitted to the new Pacific Framework process of the Pacific Islands Forum and was successfully chosen as one of the five issues to be taken forward to the Moresby Forum (although it is not clear whether the final draft text to be put before Pacific leaders in Moresby will retain the 1.5 degree commitment of the original, or whether it will be dropped to suit the interests of Australia and New Zealand). In July, the Polynesian Leaders Group, meeting in Papeete and representing ten states and territories, issued the Taputapuatea Declaration on Climate Change [pdf]. This declaration specifically mentioned 1.5 degrees as the shared position of all members of the Leaders Group.

Most important of all, the Pacific Islands Development Forum, in its meeting in Suva on 2–4 September, has opened for signature a Suva Declaration on Climate Change. This declaration, championed by the Fiji Government, will also reflect the Pacific leaders’ commitment to achieving global warming of less than 1.5 degrees.

The Pacific resolve to announce a strong position in the lead-up to the Paris conference suggests that the Pacific leaders are not in any mood to accept a move by Australia and New Zealand to water down this commitment at the Moresby Forum. In past Forums, Australia and New Zealand have vetoed the adoption of the preferred joint position of the Pacific island states by arguing that they could only sign on to communiqués consistent with their own more conservative policies.

The recently declared policy of the Australian Government for emission targets of 26–28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 clearly does not amount to a commitment to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees, where it needs to be if atoll countries are to survive. In fact the 26–28 per cent target is well below the 40–60 per cent target recommended by the Australian Climate Change Authority as necessary to keep warming below 2 degrees. For Tony de Brum, Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, ‘Australia’s weak target is another serious blow to its international reputation’. He has argued that ‘If the rest of the world followed Australia’s lead, the Great Barrier Reef would disappear. So would my country, and the other vulnerable atoll nations on Australia’s doorstep.’

The Pacific leaders have also been angered by the Abbott Government’s efforts to actively work against a global effort to curb global warming. Of particular concern to Pacific leaders in the last two years has been Australia’s failure to turn up to global climate change summits, the attempt to form an Abbott-Harper alliance to work against climate action, the cancellation of the Australian carbon emissions trading scheme, the attack on alternative energy schemes within Australia, the attempt to dismantle the Australian Climate Commission, and the statement by the Government’s chief business adviser that climate change change was a United Nations ‘hoax’. The last straw was Prime Minister Abbott’s announcement of coal as ‘good for humanity’, and his commitment to opening new coal mines just as the Kiribati government called for a global ban on new coal mines.

What then are the possible outcomes in Moresby? On past practice we would expect Australia and New Zealand (which has announced similar emissions targets to Australia) to refuse to sign on to the Pacific’s preferred position, and to hold the declaration hostage to their own interests. This was, for example, the strategy at the Cairns Forum in 2009 and the Majuro Forum in 2013. If this strategy succeeds again in Moresby, this will be a Pyrrhic victory for Canberra and Wellington. This will be seen as a win on the day in Canberra, but it will in fact prove the point that Fiji has been trying to make: that a Pacific Islands Forum with Australia and New Zealand as members is hampering the ability of the Pacific island states to defend their interests, and in the case of climate policy, their very survival.

A second possibility is that the Pacific island states decide that they would rather forego the joint Forum declaration on Pacific climate policy rather than surrendering their core commitments, which they had already endorsed in other diplomatic arenas. By default or design this would mean that they would rely on the PIDF’s Suva Declaration on Climate Change to represent their interests in the lead-up to Paris. Like the first possibility, this de-legitimates the Pacific Islands Forum as the pre-eminent regional organisation at a time when it is trying to justify its position in relation to the Fiji-backed PIDF. It will further call into question the relevance of the Pacific Islands Forum in defending the interests of Pacific island states.

A third option would be for the Forum Chair (Papua New Guinea) to recognise a Forum consensus (14 Pacific island states) for a strong Moresby Declaration with a commitment to a 1.5 degree threshold, based on the support of all Pacific island leaders in the meeting. The Chair could then call for the opening of the declaration for signature. All Pacific island states would sign, and Australia and New Zealand would not sign. A Moresby Declaration, consistent with the Suva Declaration, could then be put forward as the position of the Pacific Islands Forum. There is a precedent for this approach in the opening for the signing of the Australian-sponsored South Pacific Nuclear-free Zone Treaty, on the basis of a ‘consensus’, at the Rarotonga Forum in 1985 despite the opposition of Vanuatu and Tonga (and in the event they did not sign the treaty).

While this would be difficult for Australia and New Zealand to swallow, it would be a better path for all concerned. It would allow the heartfelt position of the Pacific island states to emerge as a Moresby Declaration on Climate Change consistent with the Suva Declaration on Climate Change. This may also provide a procedural way forward for other issues where Pacific island joint policy positions are held hostage to the interests of Australia and New Zealand. This may in turn help to restore the legitimacy of the Forum by reclaiming its original purpose [pdf] as the vehicle for the protection of Pacific island interests in global diplomacy.

Greg Fry is Associate Professor in the School of Government, Development and International Affairs at the University of the South Pacific, where he is also Academic Coordinator of Graduate Studies in Diplomacy and International Affairs.

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Greg Fry

Greg Fry is Honorary Associate Professor at the Department of Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University, and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of the South Pacific.


  • Conspicuously absent from so much discussion on climate change and the upcoming UN conference in Paris is the effect of free trade agreements such as the TPP. But to quote Naomi Klein: ’ TPP has been called “NAFTA on steroids.” It’s the latest and largest in a series of international agreements that have … fueled mindless and carbon-intensive consumption, and prevented governments from enforcing their own laws to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
    ‘In short, this corporate free trade model that the TPP represents isn’t only destabilizing our economies—it’s also a key reason why our governments have failed to come to grips with the climate crisis.’

    The NZ government just announced that it would be conducting a review of the effect of climate action on the economy. Where is the climatic cost benefit analysis of the converse effects of FTAs?
    Pacific Island leaders should be calling on the prospective Pacific partnership members and on the UN Climate Conference for a moratorium on the signing of all free trade agreements until such an exercise has been conducted.

  • I agree with Matt that what happens next week in Port Moresby is shaping up to be very significant and I think it is worth bearing in mind that this will be the first time in 3 years that the Australian PM has attended the Forum Island leaders’ meeting which just goes to underline the significance of this summit in terms of Australia ‘walking the talk’ on more and better regional engagement. I spoke yesterday with Radio Australia and noted that there will be a number of potentially challenging conversations in PNG next week, with this as one of them.

  • Greg

    Excellent analysis and description of the way of adoption of diplomatic route by small island states. Small States are less responsible for creating global problems but they are the first victims of the great power diplomacy. Pacific Island States Fourm is a community of shsred interest. It will stand united at forthcoming UN Climate Change Summit in Paris. I am confident the global community will get sensitised towards their climate problems because the liability of the damage due to climate change must be owned by the great powers and developed nations.

    These small states should rally behind the Australian proposal of South Pacific Nuclear FreebZone and Aus-Nld must understand the sensitivities of the Pacific Island States. The three diplomatic options suggested by you are very important points on which these states must have consultation before the Paris Summit. The Port Moresby Conference will turn out as a meaningful dialogue and the thareshold limit of 1.5 degree celcius will be put forth with renewed zeal and vigour. Any way, felicitations for very precise presentation of the dynamics of collective diplomacy of the small states at the multilateral forums. Plz keep it up.

  • Greg,

    Thank you for your excellent contribution. This is shaping up to be the most important Forum Leader’s meetings in years – as you say, the future relevance of the Forum is at stake.

    In my view, the way in which Australia handles this issue will be a good indication of the extent to which its political leadership considers relations with the region important. Is the Australian leadership willing to suffer moderate embarrassment by allowing a strong statement on climate change at the Forum, with a view to supporting the regional order previous Australian governments helped establish? Or does it consider the Pacific so unimportant that it is unwilling to compromise?

    I’m cautiously optimistic that sense will prevail. It would be incredibly self-destructive if Australia were to oppose and undermine a strongly-worded statement signed by forum island countries. It would both severely damage Australia’s credibility in the region, and demonstrate the validity of comments coming out of Fiji. The third course of action that you suggest, in my view, is quite clearly the best option available for all parties. I guess we’ll know next week just what Australia’s political leadership thinks of the region.

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