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  • Writer's pictureJames Cox

Return to the Pacific Climate Change Conference

In 2016 I attended the first Pacific Climate Change Conference, hosted by Victoria University, Wellington NZ. It was a confronting experience, as one Pacific Islander speaker after another described how climate change was destroying their land and communities, pointing the finger squarely at the West and exploitative capitalism. Their testimony was backed by by rigorous and equally confronting science.

Source: Caritas Aotearoa

One issue that was not discussed at the first conference was the threat that climate change poses for peace in the Pacific. In February I returned to Wellington for the second Climate Change Conference, and it was apparent this time around that the connection between climate change and peace was being made. In opening the conference, Cardinal John Dew quoted Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si:

Peace was nonetheless not the core theme of the conference, which still focuses on the science and on the work of Pacific Island peoples to adapt to climate change and mitigate its impact. Some of the significant messages from the conference included the following:

  • Predictions for the impacts of climate change are getting worse. The most extreme prediction for sea level rise by 2100 is three metres. Around half a metre is all but locked in. There is a real risk that a cascade of irreversible events including the melting ice caps, release of arctic methane, destruction of the Amazon and others will lock the world in to an ever worsening spiral of temperature rise.

  • Climate change effects already being felt across the Pacific include more frequent and stronger storms, drought, depletion of fisheries and loss of land productivity. Communities are being relocated in several countries, ideally within their own land, but sometimes to elsewhere in their own countries. Large scale international movement is not happening yet, but it will come.

  • Adaptation strategies include restoration of mangroves to calm storm effects, rehabilitation of ecosystems, low technology micro-solar desalination systems, sustainable and resilient architecture, cultural expressions, marine ecosystem protection and many, many more.

  • There is some extraordinary science being developed, like the bionic leaf, which is a remarkable leap forward in converting abundant resources - light and water - into energy.

The overall message was one of hope. Despite the terrifying science, real people are taking real action on the ground. What's more the Pacific continues to be a leader in pushing the international agenda on climate change issues. By acting together Pacific Island leaders (not including Australia!) continue to punch well above their weight.

Politics, the law, justice and security were present in the discussions, most particularly in the streams on politics and security. Peacifica was fortunate to be able to present in the security discussion. Explorations of the creative use of the law were some of the most exciting presentations at the conference, in particular the work of Julian Aguon and the Blue Ocean Law Group in challenging some of the region's most pressing climate and justice issues (like deep sea mining) and New Zealand law student Sarah Thompson's use of the courts to fight climate change in her country.

The speakers in the security panel were united in recognising the threats to peace and security from climate change, though we addressed it from very different perspectives. Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson and Nathan Ross considered the implications of climate change - and the loss of liveable territory - for sovereignty and self-determination. Between them they set out the many components of international law that influence sovereignty, and what emerged presented a hopeful picture for the children of Kiribati, Tuvalu and other atoll states: mechanisms exist in international law for sovereignty over lost lands and waters to continue, and for the exercise of self-determination by peoples who may find themselves living together in a new country.

The roles of the military and private sector were discussed. Sylvia Frain described the USA's militarisation of Micronesia, highlighting in particular the environmental impacts of proposed new firing ranges, the climate impact of new military developments and the secrecy and bureaucratic obstruction to public scrutiny. Christopher Wright, meanwhile explored the 'creative self destruction' behind the ineffectual actions of corporations in responding to climate change.

Slide from a talk by Alberto Costi on 22 February

Alongside these presentations I spoke for Peacifica on a survey of the ways in which climate change magnifies the existing threats to peace that are present in the region - issues like competition for scarce natural resources, gender inequality and large scale migration. I suggested that it is perhaps the relationship between people and their environment that is perhaps the defining feature of peace and conflict in the Pacific. More than anywhere else, in the Pacific Islands environmental factors are fundamental to people's human security. As peacebuilders we ignore this fact at our peril.

This was a very intense week, but one that in the end created a hopeful picture. There is no question that the threats posed by climate change threaten our existence. But we are starting to show that we can turn it around. Samoan Prime Minister, in his opening address to the conference, quoted his counterpart from Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, saying:

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