The Indo-Pacific has emerged as prominent geopolitical theatre. Pacific Island states have adeptly used international fora and cultivated multilateral partnerships to address their greatest concern — climate change.
China’s recent unsuccessful efforts to conclude a comprehensive security and cooperation pact with ten Pacific Island countries, and its security agreement with the Solomon Islands, concluded in April this year, received intensive international political attention and media coverage. However, clarion calls of the Pacific countries themselves about a neglect of their “real” and urgent problem, climate change, did not get such a big audience. Most Pacific Island countries face existential threats such as high vulnerability to fast rising sea levels, longer droughts and increased cyclone intensity which threatens lives and affect the livelihoods of its peoples. The international focus on the growing strategic tug-of-war in the Southwest Pacific between China on one side and Australia, New Zealand, and the US on the other side, seems a golden opportunity for the island countries to highlight to the world the urgency of the threat of climate change. At numerous previous meetings of their regional governing body, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), member countries1 had raised the subject of climate change as the greatest immediate challenge facing the Pacific region – often against strong resistance from the previous Australian government.
Fiji‘s Prime Minister Bainimarama tweeted after meeting Australian foreign minister Penny Wong in June: “Our main concern isn’t geopolitics, it’s climate change”. As the Chair of the recent 51st PIF Leaders Meeting, Bainimarama also exhorted his fellow PIF partner, the new Australian Prime Minister Albanese, “to go further for our (Pacific) family’s future by aligning Australia’s commitment to the 1.5-degree target”. It was a clear signal that Pacific Island countries did not think the new Australian government’s climate goals are sufficient. The previous Australian government, with its unambitious domestic and international climate policy and continued reliance on coal, oil, and gas, was not considered a reliable partner concerning their climate worries.
Extraordinary Pacific statesmen and women first brought the existential threat to the Pacific Island states onto the world stage. In 2012, then Kiribati Prime Minister Anote Tong was the first Pacific leader to address the UN General Assembly with an emotional plea about climate change and human rights; other outstanding politicians raising the climate issue were the President Remengesau of Palau, the previous President Dr Hilda Heine and the late Foreign Minister Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands, ex-Prime Minister Sopoaga of Tuvalu and Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama of Fiji. In their search for global climate justice, these politicians became strong advocates for climate change action.
Vanuatu is another example of a Pacific Island country getting the topic of climate and human rights onto the international agenda. In 2019, students from Vanuatu started a campaign – which was later taken up by the Vanuatu government – to have the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issue an advisory opinion on countries legal obligation to protect people from climate harm. All PIF Leaders at their July meeting endorsed Vanuatu’s bid. Government leaders of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) already in March vowed to support Vanuatu. In September, Vanuatu will be taking the issue to the UN Assembly where it will need a majority of UN member countries to support its bid. If successful, Vanuatu’s initiative could have immense international ramifications.
PIF members have also raised their voices in global fora such as the Security Council, last year’s Climate Change Conference in Glasgow and at this year’s “One Ocean Summit“ in Brest, France, where they pleaded for a more sustainable ocean policy. They continued to demand a simplified access to climate financing. Pacific Island nations were also key drivers of the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) at COP 21 in Paris, which was important to the success of the Paris Conference. Fiji’s presidency of COP23 in Bonn in 2017, with the assistance of its climate partner Germany, was a highlight of a Pacific country’s global climate engagement. In September 2021, the PIF partnered with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UK to host a “Talanoa” event (an inclusive, participatory Pacific dialogue) on Climate Finance Effectiveness in the Pacific. In their virtual meeting with the UN Secretary General Guterres, who visited the Pacific in the same month, PIF members urged developed countries to set more ambitious emissions targets for the Glasgow conference. Guterres commended the strong, united voice of the Pacific on climate change when he recently addressed the 51st Pacific Islands Forum.
Most of the Pacific countries are also members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) established in 1990, a lobby group within the UN for its 37 (+7) member countries and for the Small Island Developing Countries (SIDS). For most of the members, climate threat is an immediate existential threat, as also expressed in the concluding document Small Island Development States Accelerated Modalities of Action (S.A.M.O.A.). of the third SIDS conference in Samoa in 2014. Despite AOSIS´ original lack of political and economic clout, it has emerged as the most important UN climate lobby group for island states. It called for more ambitious climate goals in 2020 and passed a strong resolution on plastic ocean pollution in June 2020. At the COP 26 in Glasgow, AOSIS chairperson Mia Mottley, the Barbados Prime Minister, powerfully appealed to the gathering that “two degrees of global warming would be the death sentence for island nations.“.
AOSIS states succeeded in having the UN Security Council put climate change on its agenda in 2015 ahead of the Paris conference. (China, India, Russia still voted against in 2013). However, a UNSC draft resolution which tried to elevate climate change as a “threat to international peace and security” did not get through the UN Security Council in December 2021 because India voted against and permanent member Russia vetoed it, with China abstaining.
The European Union (EU) has a strategic interest in a stable and peaceful Pacific region. Pacific states generally share the EU’s common interests and universal values in multilateral fora. They are partners in addressing global challenges, in particular when it comes to climate change. For many years, the EU has supported Pacific Island countries in their efforts to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change through a number of regional projects. A good example is the €36 million Adapting to Climate Change and Sustainable Energy (ACSE) project, which ended in 2021.
For years, Germany has also supported Pacific Island countries in their efforts to cope with the impact of climate change. In 2018, Germany – together with the Pacific Island country Nauru – co-initiated the “Group of Friends on Climate and Security” which has now more than 40 members. As a follow-up to that initiative, a “Climate and Security Conference” in Berlin was opened in June 2019 by the German Foreign Minister and the President of Nauru. Germany also assisted the Marshall Islands with organisational and financial help when the Prime Minister of the Marshall Islands, Dr Hilda Heine, convened a “Virtual Climate Summit” of the most Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF2) in 2018 ahead of COP 24.
New Pacific Diplomacy
In the last decade, Pacific Island countries have raised their profile on climate change and climate security in regional and in UN institutions. They have overcome some of their internal regional divisions, coordinated their positions in their regional institution PIF, partnered like-minded countries like Germany and the UK, or joined hands with the EU or UN institutions such as AOSIS. This pragmatic “New Pacific Diplomacy” has strengthened the climate voices of the Pacific Island states in UN negotiations. The present geopolitical tug of war presents the opportunity for Pacific Island leaders to push forward their most urgent problem — climate emergency.
Dr Anne-Marie Schleich is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. She is a retired German diplomat who was Consul General in Australia and lastly German Ambassador to New Zealand and seven Pacific Island countries.