Inaction on climate change will undermine US engagement with Pacific islands
25 Nov 2019|

On 11 November, California and 22 other US states sued the US Environmental Protection Agency, requesting that a federal appeals court block the Trump administration’s revocation of a Clean Air Act waiver that has historically allowed California to set its own, more stringent vehicle emissions regulations.

While the White House finds itself fending off litigious state attorneys domestically, its continued tone-deafness to global climate concerns could also cripple US engagement in the Pacific—at a time when Beijing is making inroads throughout the region.

Last year, China eyed a permanent presence in Vanuatu, wary of strategic encirclement by American and allied militaries, and eager to expand its own navy’s range and basing options.

And this September, in a celebrated coup for Beijing, Solomon Islands and Kiribati each switched their diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. Of Taipei’s remaining 15 international partners, four are Pacific island states.

Commentators see the opening moves of a global chess game between China and the US, speak of island countries falling like dominos, or even evoke the 19th-century scramble for influence in central Asia by calling this emerging dynamic the ‘Pacific Great Game’.

But an obsessive focus on diplomatic poaching or military balancing overlooks the primary concern of islanders.

In a scathing Sydney Morning Herald op-ed, Reverend James Bhagwan, general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, made clear that in the Pacific’s fragile islands, ‘nothing worries us more than climate change’.

Bhagwan noted that Pacific islanders ‘have long asked industrialised nations to stop burning fossil fuels and to do more to help the Pacific adapt’, and he specifically excoriated Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for opening new territory in Queensland to coal mining and for employing ‘accounting tricks to create the illusion’ of satisfying Australia’s emissions targets.

Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, tweeted at Morrison last year that climate change is ‘the greatest threat facing Australia and all of your neighbors in the Pacific’.

In August, Australia promised $500 million over five years to Pacific islands, earmarked for projects related to climate change and natural disaster resilience. Later that week, however, the Pacific Islands Forum was tainted by heated arguments and even tears over the concluding communiqué’s watered-down language on global warming. According to Kiribati’s former president Anote Tong, Australia’s delegation seemed chiefly concerned with safeguarding its coal industry, and Tuvalu’s then-PM Enele Sopoaga chided Australia for forgetting ‘the spirit of the Pacific way’. Both leaders suggested that Australia be suspended or sanctioned from future gatherings.

American diplomats should be thankful that similar acrimony hasn’t also been extended towards President Donald Trump—at least not yet.

Provisions of the Paris climate agreement prevent a US withdrawal until November 2020, though at a recent natural gas industry conference in Pittsburgh, Trump confirmed his intention to abandon his predecessor’s emissions-reduction pledge.

The US Justice Department has initiated an antitrust investigation into four automakers that had cooperated with California on stricter fuel economy standards, and also filed suit over a carbon cap-and-trade framework that included Quebec, Canada, explaining that California ‘veered outside of its proper constitutional lane’ by entering into an international emissions agreement.

Beijing, to its credit, recognises the value of environmental rhetoric. In coverage of a recent economic development summit in Samoa, the state-run Xinhua news agency touted China as ‘one of the first countries to sign the Paris Agreement’ and highlighted its pledge ‘to halt the rise in carbon dioxide emissions by around 2030’.

Omitted, of course, was China’s title as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter and coal consumer, and that its carbon dioxide output grew by 4% during the first half of this year.

Public diplomacy efforts should seek to spotlight Chinese environmental recklessness, such as the release of thousands of tons of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons in northeast China in violation of the Montreal Protocol, and China’s ongoing plans to construct more than 300 coal-fired power plants around the world. Beijing would surely call such finger-pointing hypocritical, but such a campaign could nonetheless redirect some of the Pacific’s ire towards China and create awkwardness for Beijing’s envoys.

Some of the most compelling climate interlocutors with Pacific islands, however, may prove to be US defence officials. A 2010 military study cited climate change as ‘one of the ten trends most likely to impact the Joint Force’, and in 2014, the Department of Defense released a climate adaptation roadmap, aiming to keep pace with worrisome climate effects. This past January, a departmental assessment found two-thirds of listed military installations vulnerable to present or future recurring flooding, with half at risk from drought.

Defence attachés, representatives from the US Indo-Pacific Command, and officers who exercise with their Pacific island counterparts should seek opportunities to discreetly discuss the US military’s decade-old acknowledgement of climate change and ramifications for defence infrastructure, readiness and operations. While the White House may thumb its nose at climate ‘alarmists’, military leaders should sympathise when face-to-face with Pacific partners, to communicate genuine US concern and relate mitigation strategies.

But, ultimately, if the Trump administration wants to maximise its credibility among Pacific island countries, and to garner the trust and favour of the region’s residents, it will need to abandon its opposition to state-initiated emissions reductions and demonstrate authentic efforts to forestall climate change.

Otherwise, in islands acutely threatened by a warming climate, American overtures may be greeted with a downright frigid reception.