While the Pacific Islands are responsible for less than 1 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, they face disproportionate impacts from climate change. These impacts are wide ranging: rising sea levels, salinization and dwindling availability of fresh water, increasing and more intense tropical storms, floods, drought, ocean acidification and coral reef bleaching. Already, NASA finds that sea level rise in Tuvalu is 1.5 times faster than the global average — and is expected to more than double by 2100.

Auki Harbor in the Malaita Province of Solomon Islands. August 10, 2022. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)
Auki Harbor in the Malaita Province of Solomon Islands. August 10, 2022. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

This means that by 2050, most of its land area will be below high tide. This trend is concerning for all Pacific Island countries, where 67 percent of all infrastructure sits within 500 meters of the coast. And, for Pacific Islanders, it’s about much more than loss of land — it’s about the spiritual and cultural connections that the land provides.

Given this, the climate crisis is among the highest security concerns across the Pacific Island nations. The Pacific Islands Forum, a regional body that is comprised of 18 diverse countries from Australia to Kiribati to Papua New Guinea, looked to tackle this issue head on during its annual leaders meeting earlier this month. While in many respects the meeting traveled well-worn ground, there were a number of groundbreaking announcements related to climate-induced migration and displacement in the region.

The Region’s Approach to Climate Change

At the forum, leaders endorsed the Pacific Regional Framework on Climate Mobility, which seeks to guide governments, communities and partners to plan for climate-related mobility and maintain the rights of those staying in place, planning to relocate or on the move. The framework acknowledges that staying in place is a fundamental priority, and that planned relocation — where people are voluntarily moved out of harm’s way to another location — should be a measure of last resort. Despite this, the Pacific has an impressive track record in instituting guidelines on planned relocation, with both Fiji and Vanuatu leading the way with national policies.

In addition, Pacific leaders reaffirmed their support for the Pacific Resilience Facility, a member-owned and managed community financing facility. Originally established in 2021, it remains to be fully capitalized. Australia and New Zealand have committed to contributing to the facility, but total pledges remain to be seen. A forthcoming capitalization event looks to raise $500 million in seed funding.

Australia and Tuvalu Make a Deal

While regional progress was on display, one bilateral deal made more of a media splash. During the forum, Australia and Tuvalu announced their intention to enter into the “Falepili Union.” Falepili is a Tuvaluan word referring to neighborliness, care and mutual respect. Most notably, within the agreement, Australia offered to provide up to 280 Tuvalu citizens residency, work and study rights each year because of the threat of climate change. In addition, Australia has also pledged to fund coastal adaptation projects, including land reclamation work around the capital, Funafuti, to the tune of $220 million. Australia has also committed to respond to major natural disasters, pandemics and “military aggression against Tuvalu.”

In exchange, Tuvalu has agreed to not enter into any other international security arrangement without mutual agreement with Australia. The hope, then, is to curb China’s influence in the region and to mitigate the risk of Tuvalu making a deal like the one made by Solomon Islands, which grants the Chinese navy the right to dock and refuel at its ports. At present, Tuvalu is one of the few nations in the Pacific with formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Tuvalu and other Pacific Islands are particularly concerned about the effects of sea level rise on national sovereignty, fearing a loss of statehood if their land becomes uninhabitable. Under the Falepili Union, Australia explicitly agrees to continue to recognize Tuvalu’s sovereignty and statehood regardless of climate change effects. In the event that Tuvalu becomes uninhabitable, the Tuvalu government wants to retain sovereignty over its waters and the natural resources contained in them.

While the European Union has hailed the agreement as novel, there are some detractors. Critics note that the agreement does not impel Australia to phase out fossil fuel extraction and use. Indeed, the country has 116 new coal, oil and gas projects in the pipeline. Others claim that Tuvaluan citizens were not consulted on the deal, and that many of them have no desire to move to Australia. Opposition leader and former prime minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, has called for a referendum as part of the treaty ratification process.
Despite this, there is speculation that Kiribati and Nauru might consider similar agreements in the future.

Pacific Islands Continue to Push the International Community

The Pacific will continue to be a site of climate impacts — and solutions. Certainly, this is partly driven by the existential nature of the crisis in the region. However, China’s expanding role is changing geopolitical calculus and intervention more than ever before.

This has been on full display this year. In May, the United States committed $2 million to help stand up the Pacific Resilience Facility. And at the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum Summit in September, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that sea-level rise driven by climate change should “not cause any country to lose its statehood or its membership in the United Nations, its specialized agencies, or other international organizations.”

Now, with the next Conference of the Parties 28 (COP28) set to start in Dubai this week, the Pacific Islands will continue to have a powerful say. The Pacific Islands have made clear they expect to keep the global goal of mitigating emissions to maintain less than a 1.5-degree Celsius rise alive. They also will be front and center on negotiations on the pending Loss and Damage Fund, which is meant to mobilize funding for irreversible impacts of climate change, and where they contend they should be major beneficiaries.

Katherine Waters is a senior program assistant for the climate, environment and conflict team at USIP.

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