Leaders gather for Pacific Islands Forum

Leaders from Pacific nations, including Australia and New Zealand, are gathering in the Marshall Islands for the Pacific Islands Forum, with climate change a major item on the agenda.

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The Marshall Islands is hosting the forum, and has chosen the theme “Marshalling the Pacific response to the climate challenge”.

It is pushing for member countries, and observers like the US and China, to support a pledge to take bold action on climate change.

Isolated in the Pacific, its capital sitting less than two metres above sea level, 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 4800 kilometres north of Auckland.

When Pacific leaders touch down in the capital of Majuro on Tuesday, they’ll see first-hand the impact changing weather patterns, rising seas and ocean acidification are having on the islands.

Australia will be represented by Senator Jacinta Collins, Minister for Mental Health and Ageing. In the absence of a high-powered Australian delegation, days out from the 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.

Prime Minister John Key’s visit comes just two weeks after the NZ government announced an emissions reduction target of five per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 – a meagre goal in comparison to the European Union’s commitment of 20 per cent below 1990 levels.

Mr Key defends that, saying New Zealand’s commitment is still bigger than those of the US and Australia.

A week ago, Marshall Islands government minister Tony de Brum labelled New Zealand’s commitment “so, so meaningless”.

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, told AAP.

“Relocation is not an option for us,” he said. “We did not create this problem. It is the responsibility of the polluters to reverse their polluting ways.”

That includes the US, which administered the Marshall Islands for four decades until 1986 and 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 another 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 US and China – to make specific, bold targets to reduce their emissions.

“The Pacific Rim is home to more than 60 per cent of global greenhouse emissions and rising,” Mr de Brum said.

“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.

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