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The Climate Crisis and Evolving Geopolitics: Lessons from the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum

20 September, 2019

Alexa Reith – Research Assistant

In August 2019, the annual Pacific Islands Forum was held. Whilst often overshadowed by larger summits that also occur between June and September each year, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) is a critical annual event that offers a diplomatic platform for engagement and strategy for one of the globes most diverse regions. Relevantly, the 2019 event offers a unique and timely insight into the political sensitivities and priorities that are central to the politics of climate change.


By way of background, the 2019 summit was set in Tuvalu and was the 50th meeting of the forum’s 18 member states; which include Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

Much of the PIF’s contemporary work is guided by the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. Committed to by the PIF in 2014, the framework sheds light on the complex and multilayered issues that are relevant to the region. It is also a practical tool that aids in agenda-setting and prioritisation of issues and relationship building.

2019 Agenda and Communique

Unsurprisingly, climate change underpinned much of the discussions and deliberations for the 2019 PIF. Host state Tuvalu led this charge, with many of the ceremonies and local presentations drawing attention to how the effects of climate change – particularly rising sea levels – were directly eroding life in local communities.

Against such a backdrop, and the diverse interests of PIF members, concerns that the 2019 PIF would be derailed were legitimate. Nevertheless, a consensus was ultimately reached and the PIF leaders produced a noteworthy and interesting communique.

Notably, the communique affirmed climate change as “the “single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”. In line with statements of several PIF leaders following the conclusion of the summit, the need for strong leadership and initiative were also acknowledged as prerequisites for meaningful mitigation to the climate crisis. Evocatively, the possibility of advocating for an advisory opinion to be sort from the International Court of Justice regarding the “obligations of States under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change” was also made.

Beyond climate change, the communique enshrined a number of commitments to enhance the capacity and resiliency of PIF states. Of note, ad hoc meetings to consider sustainable development challenges and formulate “coherent economic, social and environmental regional strategies and policies” were supported in the communique. Likewise, the communique adopted a directive for the criterion for Forum Dialogue Partners and Observers to be reviewed. Reference to broader international issues – including resolution of maritime disputes, recognition of sovereignty and ratification of arms control agreements – were also made.

Reservations and evolving geopolitics

In the lead up to the 2019 PIF, competing political interests were earmarked as threats to the unity of the forum. Such interests were also pre-emptively framed as issues that would ultimately undermine any initiative and/or commitment that was reached between the PIF leaders.

Overall, such predictions were relevant and accurately reflected the contemporary political climate. That being said, whilst political interests did influence the 2019 PIF, they did not derail or devalue the forum. In this regard, the 2019 communique has been praised as a “significant milestone” and a tool that “will elevate and add considerable weight to the Pacific’s negotiating priorities at the international level”.

The forum also sheds light on the political influences and diplomatic tensions occurring throughout the diverse region. To this end, the commitment to review the criterion for Observers and Dialogue Partners indicates greater efforts to regulate the influence and distraction of external interests and competing priorities within the PIF region. Comparatively, calls upon larger economies within the PIF leadership group to demonstrate – not merely articulate – commitments in terms of climate change policy is indicative of decreasing levels of patience amongst some PIF states. Equally, such behaviour demonstrates enhanced expectations and diplomatic pressures within the PIF leadership group “to make real, tangible commitment on climate change.”

Markedly, such trends are not unique to the PIF but reflect a broader international policy push for recognition of the effects of climate change and commitment to sustainable development. For example, such sentiments are central to the ad hoc 2019 Climate Action Summit which is designed to “showcase [the] leap in collective national political ambition” and demonstrate “massive movements in the real economy in support of the agenda”. Similarly, the PIF’s push for accountability and leadership is reflected in the preparatory materials for the Climate Action Summit, with the UN Secretary General calling for all states to attend with “concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020”.

Overall, such events – particularly recognition of climate change as a threat to the life and livelihoods of communities around the globe – should be seen as a positive development. Weight should also be given to the fact that such events and many of the corollary issues that are tied to climate change are causing pressure to be placed on states to prioritise the adoption of meaningful climate change policy. That being said, the strong resistance by some states to adopt such policies or even recognise the effects of climate change remain powerful and divisive in solving such a multifaceted and evolving problem.

Looking ahead, the 2019 PIF offers a glimmer of hope for engagement. However, it simultaneously moderates what to expect at upcoming climate summits. In this regard, the PIF demonstrates the scope that political sensitivities and priorities can both promote and plague climate change debates. Moreover, the forum exemplifies the delicate nature and more often than not indiscriminate consequences of a state’s policy choices. Appreciating this, hope for effecting change should not be lost, but targeted to change and reprioritisation of policy by leaders.

About Alexa Reith

Alexa Reith will shortly complete her Master of Laws with Flinders University, which has focused upon International Law and International Relations. Alexa obtained her undergraduate degrees in Law and International Relations from Griffith University and worked as an Australian Qualified Solicitor prior to commencing her postgraduate studies. Alexa’s research interests include dispute resolution and security studies, particularly in terms of nuclear ethics and nuclear policy and decision making.