Pacific islands hope to persuade world to move on climate change

Leaders from nations most affected by climate change sign declaration pledging to reduce emissions

Remains of fallen trees litter the beach near Laura, a village in the Marshall Islands.
AP Photo/Rusty Middleton

Pacific island nations signed a declaration this week vowing to become “climate leaders” in the battle against the impact of greenhouse gases, but now they’ll need to convince the rest of the world to follow in their footsteps.

Members of the 15-nation Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) finalized the Majuro Declaration, named after the Marshall Islands' capital where they gathered this week, saying it should be a "game changer" in faltering efforts to address global warming. It commits the island nations – some of which are barely three feet above sea level – to specific pledges on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and adopting renewable energy. The document will be presented to the United Nations in the hope that it may be the platform for larger countries to step up their efforts against climate change.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Friday, Tony deBlum, minister in assistance to the President of the Marshall Islands, outlined the urgency of the situation.

“This year we witnessed severe drought, tidal flooding and inundation of our fresh water by salt water within the atolls. We now have an ongoing drought disaster in effect in the northern Marshall Islands where we are distributing emergency drinking water and food rations,” he said.

He added that climate change had already had an impact on the economy of the island, and signs of population displacement and movement.

Asked if he was optimistic about the declaration having an impact, deBlum said: “In the last 20 years, there has never been a concentration of such vulnerable countries under one roof at the same time, and members of the forum were able to explain the effects of climate change as it affects us personally.”

But it remains to be seen whether the Pacific islands, which account for a very small percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, can convince larger, more polluting nations like the United States, to sign on to their pledge.

“All these years that we’ve been involved in this business, the most distressing signs that we have viewed is that everyone is saying, “Hey you go first,” deBrum said. “We are trying to tell people whose voices command attention in the world....[that] it’s an urgent and immediate problem.”

The island nations had an opportunity to make their case on Friday when the PIF leaders met with representatives of 13 countries attending the summit as dialogue partners, including major polluters such as China and the United States..

Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak said the declaration was only the beginning, adding "the real work begins now" to persuade the rest of the world to also take concrete action on the issue.

"We want our Majuro Declaration for climate leadership to be a game changer in the global fight against climate change," he said.

The Marshall Islands is one of the countries attempting to lead by example. Tony de Brum pointed out that one-third of the island’s residents already obtain their electricity through solar.  And all of the Pacific Islands have put in place strict emissions restrictions. 

The goal of the Majuro Declaration is to get the rest of the world to adopt legally binding resolutions by 2015.

Palau President Tommy Remengesau, Jr., whose country was chosen to host next year's PIF summit, said the Pacific leaders want to show both that immediate action was possible, and needed.

"In the true spirit of Pacific culture, we don't use harsh words or demands," he said. "But the issue is about our very survival and sustainability as a people."

The United States has signaled that it’s receptive to the PIF’s plans. Secretary of State John Kerry contacted the islands via video conference earlier this week to proclaim his support for “immediate” action.

But getting legally binding resolutions will be harder. It’ll be up to the PIF nations to convince world leaders that the problem needs to be tackled now.

“We want to change the notion that this is a problem that is 100 years down the line,” said Tony de Brum. “It’s not. It’s happening now.”

Renee Lewis contributed to this report, with wire services

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