NZ focus at climate change talks
Changing weather patterns are impacting on coastal regions around the Pacific
By Laura Mcquillan
Isolated in the Pacific, its capital sitting less than two metres above sea level, this year's Pacific Islands Forum host - the Marshall Islands - is quite literally struggling to keep its head above water.
A freak high wave or storm can prove catastrophic for the Marshalls, a group of 34 atolls with a population of 65,000, sitting 4,800 kilometres north of Auckland.
When Prime Minister John Key and other Pacific leaders touch down in the capital of Majuro today, they'll see first-hand the impacts changing weather patterns, rising seas and ocean acidification are having on the islands - which have, fittingly, chosen climate change as the theme of this year's meeting.
In the absence of a high-powered Australian delegation, days out from that country's general election, all eyes will be on New Zealand as the forum member with the most power to influence the global agenda to combat climate change.
Mr Key's visit comes just two weeks after the Government announced an emissions reduction target of five percent below 1990 levels by 2020 - a meagre goal in comparison to the European Union's commitment of 20 percent below 1990 levels.
Mr Key defends that, saying New Zealand's commitment is still bigger than those from the US and Australia.
He will try to alleviate Pacific concerns about New Zealand's goal with new aid announcements, expected to include new funding to help small island nations address climate change concerns.
And the Marshalls will want to see some more commitment.
NIWA's Pacific Rim manager and climate change expert Doug Ramsay says the Marshalls face a similar outlook to Pacific cousins Kiribati and Tuvalu: a potential worst-case scenario of mass relocations and abandonment as rising seas threaten their people's livelihoods.
"The question is about whether they can change quick enough to respond to the effects of climate change," Mr Ramsay says.
Mass population evacuations are decades off, but the Marshallese government isn't content to wait around for that to happen, Minister in Assistance to the President, Tony de Brum, tells NZ Newswire.
"Relocation is not an option for us," he says.
"Our connection to this land runs deeper than other cultures understand. We are not prepared to simply up and leave behind our traditions, our language, our history.
"We did not create this problem. It is the responsibility of the polluters to reverse their polluting ways."
That includes the United States, which administered the Marshall Islands for four decades until 1986, and which provides aid support essential to the Marshalls' economy.
President Christopher Loeak wrote a strongly worded letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of the forum.
"If the US is serious about rolling up its sleeves and renewing its global leadership on climate change, you will pivot to the Pacific and join us in Majuro," he wrote.
That invitation was snubbed; Mr Kerry is busy dealing with a potential US-led military strike on Syria, and has instead sent a lower-ranked official.
Regardless, the Marshalls will push ahead with an attempt to get Pacific-wide agreement on the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership, which "recognises the complete insufficiency of current efforts to reduce [emissions]", and calls on post-forum dialogue partners - including the United States and China - to make specific, bold targets to reduce their emissions.
"The Pacific Rim is home to more than 60 percent of global greenhouse emissions and rising," Mr de Brum says.
"This is the key battlefield in the war against climate change. We need the wider region to support our call for urgent action."
The forum wraps up on Friday.