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The Pacific Did Copenhagen provide a Lifeboat?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Meg spoke at a meeting of the Pacific Islands Society, which was held at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), her speech is below. For details of the Society visit: www.pacificislandsuk.org


It’s a pleasure to be with you again. Last time I spoke at a gathering of the Pacific Island Society I said the following about the Pacific


 “When you get there you’re dazzled by its beauty and the welcome from your hosts, but your mobile phone doesn’t work and the internet connection is not always great. But whilst there I did grow to understand the value that many Pacific people place on the connection to the UK, despite these difficulties of distance and communication.”


Just over a year on, I’m pleased to say that my views have been reinforced by a further visit to the region. Last August I led a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to study the effects climate change is having on some of these small island nations. The group visited Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu and Tuvalu all members of the Commonwealth. In order to see four islands the group divided into two. I visited Tuvalu, a small nation with a population of 11,000 and its main island, Funafuti a long strip of land. I also visited Vanuatu, much the biggest of the four with a population of just over 200,000. My colleague Colin Challen MP, who will speak shortly, led the group that visited Kiribati and Tonga.


Climate change shot up the news agenda with the Copenhagen conference in December. Amongst the areas of the world badly affected now are the small island nations in the South Pacific who have become one of the front lines of climate change. Secretary of State for the Department for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband, told us that more than ever before the small island nations made their voice heard Tuvalu and the Maldives in particular. The outcome wasn’t what they wanted indeed what they need but has it done enough to set the world on a road that will take action to prevent the worst?


This international summit had to agree a plan replacing the 1997 ‘Kyoto Protocol’ which set voluntary targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. It is becoming increasingly accepted that climate change is a problem affecting the world now, not for some distant time in the future. For the Pacific Islands we visited the issue could not be more urgent.


A new estimate gives us the figure of 300,000 deaths a year due to climate change, with a further 300 million people adversely affected. (Climate Change, Global Humanitarian Forum Geneva 2009).


The Pacific Ocean comprises nearly a third of the world’s surface area, dotted with many small nations. As we saw both Tuvalu and Kiribati are nations which comprise a number of low-lying islands, much more vulnerable to the climate than large continental land masses. While extreme events such flooding here in the UK  receive extra resources from government and are seen as a wake up call about climate change, in the Pacific they can impose severe hardship or literally mean the end of a village forever.  


We heard from many people that the effects of climate change are already making daily life much more difficult. Some were angry that while they contribute virtually no emissions themselves they are suffering the changes due to the greenhouse gas emissions we pump out. Experts at the University of the South Pacific described it as one of the most profound issues across the Pacific.


A boat ride across choppy waters took me to the village of Marou on Emau Island: a small island in Vanuatu. The village is built on a promontory and Daniel Kaltava, a provincial councillor, showed us how the land is being eroded. Already the village relies on harvested rainwater as the ground water is contaminated. Funds from international organisations have provided reinforcement for the coastline but the villagers live with the fear that a storm could destroy trees and other defences which line the coast.


The economies of these small island nations are shaped by the extreme changes bought by climate change changes that set back sustainable economic development. The Pacific islands are relatively poor and less able to cope with the extreme weather that is becoming more frequent. Local people lack the resources needed to be resilient to these new weather events.


It is not the often portrayed black and white issue of the sea level rising and islands disappearing under water. Long before that populations have to move. Already in Vanuatu one small island’s population has been relocated. Rising salty sea water contaminates the ground water which is used for drinking leading to the need to harvest water. On the main island of Tuvalu, Funafuti, the local council told us that families are currently rationed to six buckets of water each morning and evening.


When the land becomes saturated and salty it is impossible to grow food. At the moment around 70 80% of the people on these islands are reliant upon agriculture. In Tuvalu the island regularly experiences high tides leading to flooding.  How can a small farmer keep animals or sow crops when fertile soils and freshwater are contaminated with salt from rising seas?


The cost of importing food increases and puts greater pressure on the economy of these small nations. Across the South Pacific the issue of food security has risen in importance. Experts from the Vanuatuan Metrological office told me that their consultation on climate change showed this to be the number one climate change issue for local people.


What future?

Does it really matter if these people have to leave their islands? If left unabated climate change refuges will increase in numbers not just in the Pacific region but across Africa and north India and Bangladesh. Whether due to rising sea water or drought, the inability to grow food will force people on the move.


Pressure will surely grow for the larger countries in the Pacific to take in climate change refugees. But the reality is that no Pacific nation will be unaffected, not matter how large. More than half the population of the islands of the region live within 1.5 km of the shore. Within 20 years heavily populated areas of many nations in the region will be uninhabitable.


Some of these islands have begun to prepare for the future. For instance Vanuatu has prepared a National Adaptation Programme for Action, but due to lack of funding has not been able to implement much. It’s important we support the Pacific people as they try and adapt to a future determined by their changeable weather, changeable because of our actions. These island communities are poor and vulnerable; they are victims of climate change.


The people of these islands have tried to tell the industrial countries of the world what has been happening, asking us to change our ways before it is to late for them. The world needs to hear the voice of the people of the Pacific. It has been said that the Pacific as “the canary in the coalmine” warning the world of future disasters. Supporting Pacific countries in international gatherings is a role the UK has taken up and was one of the aims of our visit.


What next?

There’s no doubt that the outcome of Copenhagen was disappointing in a number of respects. It did not establish a clear timetable for a legal treaty, and the commitment to cuts in emissions. However, the Accord agreed at Copenhagen does mark progress which must be built on. The Copenhagen Accord was agreed by a group representing 49 developed and developing countries that together account for over 80% of global emissions. It endorses the limit of 2 degrees warming as the benchmark for global progress on climate change. The Pacific Islands had argued for no more than 1.5 degrees even within the Pacific Island Forum the agreement was no more than 2 degrees due to the influence of larger nations.


Developed and all leading developing countries have agreed to make specific commitments to tackle emissions. The agreement was that they should be lodged by January 31st, but unfortunately that no longer seems to be a firm deadline. All countries also signed up to comprehensive measurement, reporting and verification of progress. There are significant commitments made by the rich world to developing countries. This includes fast start finance worth 10billion dollars a year by 2012 with a total of up to 2.4 billion dollars from the UK and specific support to tackle deforestation.


However 49 countries is not enough. This is a global problem.


I am pleased that the British Government is committed to working to convert the accord into a legally binding agreement as soon as possible.


I hope that the Pacific Islands will continue to speak up and challenge both industrialised countries and developing countries to agree to action to limit temperature rise. It’s also important to continue to demand funds for adaptation whether water tanks provided by the EU to harvest rainwater which I saw in Tuvalu or material to build up coast line to prevent erosion as I saw in Vanuatu. The experts tell us that failure to help populations adapt now will mean that the situation will be much worse in 20 years time



On my visits to the Pacific Islands I have been impressed with their beauty and unique environments. I have also been privileged to meet people from a wider range of countries and to learn a little about the fascinating histories of the Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian peoples. Faced with the challenge of climate change and their possible disappearance we have a duty to act. They left a lasting impression on me and I hope that I will continue to be counted as a friend of the Pacific.


Associated Photograph :

Meg with Mrs Chris Luxton, Society Chairperson, the Rev Canon Brian Macdonald-Milne, Vice-Chairman, and Tom Hughes, who edits the Society’s newsletters.

Meg with Mrs Chris Luxton, Society Chairperson, the Rev Canon Brian Macdonald-Milne, Vice-Chairman, and Tom Hughes, who edits the Society’s newsletters.

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