Report – By Kai Ping Lew in Suva
Recognising losses and damages as a separate issue from adaptation in climate change policy is one of the major developments featured in the Suva Declaration signed by seven Pacific leaders.
The third Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) summit in Suva saw leaders, civil society representatives and the private sector convening to form the declaration which will be brought before COP21 Paris in 12 weeks’ time.
The previous COP agreement featured losses and damages as an element under adaptation, forcing governments to prioritise between both.
Other significant clauses in yesterday’s declaration include the need for the Paris agreement to be ambitious in its measures with a five-year review, be a legally binding protocol and be committed to keeping average global temperature rises below 1.5 degrees centigrade.
The Pacific nations most affected by climate change in the short term include Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands.
At an average of two metres above sea level, Kiribati could be underwater by the end of the century if nothing is done.
Tuvalu faces similar fears, with its highest land mass only five metres above sea level.
Kiribati has been forced to relocate one of its villages, Tebunginako, to another island in the republic, and it has bought 2430 hectares of land on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu to relocate its people in the future.
“We want to come away from Paris with some clear guarantees that something will be done to ensure the future generations will have a chance of survival, that we would remain a sovereign state,” said Kiribati President Anote Tong.
“On the broader scale, we are hoping for the good of humanity to come away with meaningful agreements, not agreements that are cosmetic in nature.”
Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said natural disasters had been highly exacerbated by climate change, and there was a need to ensure COP21 took that into account.
“We are dealing with the lives of human beings. It’s not about saving economies, or proving science.”
He added that there were limits to how much Tuvalu could adapt, and already they did so in their everyday lives.
United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Change Mary Robinson said the Pacific faced huge vulnerability from the effects of climate change, and there was a need to ensure that their fundamental right to live on their ancestral homes was preserved.
“We’ve come to the realisation that adaptation for us is going to be beyond our borders, because we don’t have the high grounds most other countries have,” said Tong.
However, he had also committed towards building up the island so it will still exist in some form when the sea level rises.
Tongan Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva said relocation was no longer the issue – the issue was when and where they would migrate to as it had become a matter of survival.
Tonga has one of the largest diasporas within the Pacific Island communities, with an estimated 100,000 Tongans living overseas.
Migration with dignity
President Tong spoke of the uncertainty in the future of Kiribati – in the prospects of its citizens and the fate of its low-lying island country.
He rejected the term “climate refugees”, and instead hoped that his people could migrate with dignity, and the preparations needed to begin immediately.
“It’s going to take a long time to train them so that if and when they do migrate, they will not be migrating as we are seeing in Europe, but will migrate within existing processes as people with skills,” said Tong.
Prime Minister Sopoaga stressed the importance of solidarity within the region and emphasised the danger of settling for less in the COP21 negotiations.
“We cannot allow others to say “we’ll relocate you somewhere else” but come away with a loose agreement.
“We must come away with legally binding and ambitious agreements, because failing that we will have failed altogether,” said Sopoaga.
Marshall Islands Minister of Foreign Affairs Tony de Brum said: “There is nothing more humiliating for anyone than to become wards of another civilisation.”
Special Envoy Robinson affirmed that the refugee crisis already seen in Europe would only be aggravated by climate change.
She urged the leaders of the Small Island Developing States to discuss what they needed to take away from COP21 further to present a united front and demand a strong agreement.
“We can get past this if we have enough human solidarity.”
Niklas Pedersen and Kai Ping Lew are postgraduate student journalists from AUT University on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course. They are in Fiji on a two-week internship with Repúblika Magazine and Wansolwara and will also file a series of reports for Pacific Scoop about their experience.