UN, Forum partners pushed on climate change

Marshalls wants issue a global security problem

By Giff Johnson

March 2013

Climate Change
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Waves Jenrok: During the highest tide period of the year in late January 2011, ocean water washed across the road and into houses in parts of Majuro Atoll. There was no storm associated with this flooding—only a high tide.-- Suzanne Chutaro

As evidence of climate change mounts, increasing worry in the Pacific about the future, the Marshall Islands appealed to the United Nations Security Council in February to take up the issue as a global security problem.

While that effort faces formidable opposition in the form of China and Russia, the Marshall Islands, as host of this year’s Pacific Islands Forum meeting, is also ratcheting up rhetoric aimed at Forum donor partners, putting them on notice that the islands expect more than talk at the post-Forum dialogue in Majuro in September.

In mid-February, Marshall Islands Minister Tony deBrum petitioned the United Nations to recognize climate change as a potential hazard to the very survival of the Marshall Islands and other low-lying islands nations.

During meetings at the UN and a follow-up press conference, he called on the Security Council to take up climate change as a threat to international peace and security.

The Security Council “that we put faith in to provide the security of our country is saying that it is not a security matter,” said deBrum.

He reminded the council that in 1986, it had approved the termination of the UN trusteeship affecting the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia.

“It seems ironic that the very agency whose approval was needed for my country to become a country again would consider my coming back to ask for help not relevant to their work,” he said.

DeBrum said climate change “is in fact a security issue, not just an economic, social or political issue.” But China, the Russian Federation and Guatemala are among Security Council members who oppose treating climate change as a council matter, saying the appropriate venue for the issue is the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The so-called “Group of 77” developing countries, of which the Marshall Islands was a member, has not yet supported this move to elevate climate change to the highest level at the UN.

DeBrum said this shows that, “many of our own friends throughout the world do not realize the urgency of the problem.”

In the Pacific, Kiribati and Tuvalu have generally been most active in pushing concern about climate change and sea level rise, with Kiribati recently looking at the option of purchasing land in Fiji for wholesale migration.
During the past several years, the Marshall Islands has become increasingly engaged.

This started when Phillip Muller, now the country’s foreign minister, was ambassador to the UN and engaged in a number of high-profile activities, including co-sponsoring an international conference at Columbia University in New York on the question of legal rights of countries if they disappear due to sea level rise.

Two new United States government reports have fueled worry in the Marshall Islands. Muller and deBrum are saying the draft report of the US National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee is a “wake up call” requiring urgent action to address the impact of predicted sea level rise.

“Marshall Islands and other atoll nations “may be among the first to face the possibility of climate-induced human migration as sea level continues to rise,” said the report released in January.

“Changes to both coral and fish pose threats to communities, cultures, and ecosystems of the Pacific Islands both directly through their impact on food security and indirectly through their impact on economic sectors including fisheries and tourism. US scientists have confirmed what we have already been telling the world for a long time,” said deBrum. The US National Climate Assessment raises the specter of migration and the challenges it presents.

“Low islands have a different set of challenges (compared to Hawaii and other high islands). Climate change related to migration, for example, is particularly relevant to the low islands communities in the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, and presents significant practical, cultural, and legal challenges.”

Muller said he believes “the idea of ‘climate migration’ is unacceptable, but it cannot be ignored by either Marshall Islands or the US.”
In addition to the push at the United Nations, the Marshall Islands plans to put climate change front and center at this year’s annual meeting of leaders that will happen in Majuro in early September.

DeBrum puts donor partners on notice that the islands expect engagement on this issue.

“The Forum summit in Majuro has to make it clear that the Pacific, and the world, cannot keep nibbling at the edges of this issue,” deBrum said. “We need political leadership, not sympathy.”

DeBrum said the UN climate negotiations in Doha last year recognized that present commitments to cut emissions are inadequate, but progress has been bottlenecked because major powers are in a “you go first” scenario of finger pointing.

Muller said this year’s Forum in Majuro will be an important stepping stone for the Pacific as it prepares for a global leaders meeting on climate change in 2014. Marshall Islands officials are looking for political engagement with the Pacific’s “Post-Forum Dialogue Partners” that include the United States, China, Taiwan, Japan, Australian and other nations.

Muller said these countries that are the Pacific’s major donors are also among the world’s largest emitters of harmful greenhouse gasses.

“Major powers around the world are interested in boosting ties with the Pacific region,” said deBrum. “It is time they see real leadership from the Pacific and match it with their own political aspirations to find a way to go beyond the emission cuts already on the table. If the major emitters cannot come to the table to do more, maybe they shouldn’t get off the plane.”

Key points from the draft US National Climate Change Assessment

This US government report issued as a draft for public comments in January contains a chapter on Hawaii and the US-affiliated Pacific islands. Its main conclusions:

  • Ocean warming and acidification are producing changes in coastal and ocean ecosystems. Warmer seas are leading to increased coral bleaching events and disease outbreaks in coral reefs, and changed distribution patterns of tuna fisheries. Ocean acidification will lead to reduced calcification rates for corals and coralline algae. Both factors, combined with existing stresses, will strongly affect the fish community of coral reefs.
  • Freshwater supplies are already constrained and will be more limited on many Pacific Islands, especially low-lying islands. The quantity and quality of freshwater in aquifers and surface catchments will decline in response to warmer and drier conditions, coupled with increased occurrences of saltwater intrusion associated with sea level rise.
  • Increasing temperatures and in some areas reduced rainfall will stress native Pacific Islands plant and animal populations and species, especially in high-elevation ecosystems with increasing exposure to invasive species, increasing the risk of extinctions.
  • Rising sea levels, coupled with high water levels caused by tropical and extra- tropical storms, will incrementally increase coastal flooding and erosion, damaging coastal ecosystems, infrastructure, and agriculture, and negatively affecting tourism.
  • Mounting threats to food and water security, infrastructure and public health and safety are expected to lead to increasing human migration from low to high elevation islands and continental sites. Under these circumstances, it will become increasingly difficult for Pacific Islanders to sustain the region’s many unique customs, beliefs and languages.

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