Pacific island nations seek climate justice amid rising sea levels

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gave a stark warning to global leaders at the opening of the COP27 conference that humanity was on a “highway to climate hell” if the fight for a livable planet was lost this decade.

Many small, poor nations are already hurtling down that highway, and nowhere is this more profound than in the Pacific, say experts.

They said the two-week COP27, the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, now being held in Egypt, is already seeing the rich states sprinkle largesse on poorer countries battling the effects of climate change. 

Well before this year’s COP, the Pacific Islands Forum (a regional political and economic policy group comprising 18 countries) declared a climate emergency and demanded real action from world leaders.

Leo Hickman, editor of Carbon Brief, told China Daily that “in terms of saving the Pacific, many of the Pacific nations argue their existential ‘point of no return’ for them, in terms of sea level rise, is the 1.5 C goal”

Leo Hickman, editor of Carbon Brief, a UK-based website covering the latest developments in climate science, climate policy and energy policy, told China Daily that “in terms of saving the Pacific, many of the Pacific nations argue their existential ‘point of no return’ for them, in terms of sea level rise, is the 1.5 C goal”. However, “that is now very, very close to being lost”, he said, citing the recent UN Environment Programme Emissions Gap Report.

The World Meteorological Organization said recently that climate change is happening at catastrophic speed, with the last eight years the warmest on record.

Guterres said sea levels are rising at twice the speed of the 1990s – posing an existential threat for low-lying island states (especially in the Pacific) and threatening billions of people in coastal regions. Glacier melt records are themselves melting away – jeopardizing water security for whole continents.

He said: “We must answer the planet’s distress signal with action, ambitious, credible climate action. COP27 must be the place – and now must be the time.”

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Leaders from 14 Pacific nations are attending COP27. 

Among the key issues, vulnerable countries are pressing for developed nations to pay compensation for the emissions over hundreds of years and their consequence on developing states’ economies.

But already many developed nations, including Australia, have cast doubts over compensation. 

Karlos Moresi, the program adviser, resilience development finance, at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, said there was a pushback from developed countries.

Speaking on Radio New Zealand on Nov 8, Moresi said the Pacific states argued for the inclusion of compensation or liability as a sub-item on the agenda, but after hours of negotiation the argument fell short.

“We may have conceded on the compensation and liability text, but we still managed to get loss and damage included on the agenda,” Moresi said.

Speaking on the same program, Daniel Lund, Fiji’s special adviser on climate change and loss and damage, said “there is a latency of ambition that is hitting the poorest the hardest”.

Asked if there were any compromises to get loss and damage onto the agenda, Lund said: “We’ve been compromising for three decades.”

For its part, the Vanuatu government has launched a global campaign to seek a climate change advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice.

In a statement on Nov 10, Vanuatu said current levels of action and support for vulnerable developing countries are insufficient and it wanted the ICJ to clarify the responsibilities for climate change under international law.

New Zealand, meanwhile, has earmarked NZ$20 million ($11.7 million) in funding for loss and damage, putting it among a handful of mainly European countries to set aside cash specifically for loss and damage caused by climate change. 

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said the decision placed New Zealand at the leading edge of wealthy countries, according to a report by Reuters on Nov 9.

“We will work with our partners, in particular Pacific governments, to support areas they identify as priorities,” she said.

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Agnes Hall, global campaigns director at environmental group, said in a statement to China Daily: “The deep inequalities between nations, and the vast difference between the carbon emissions of countries in Europe and North America and countries in Africa, Asia and South America, have their foundations in a long history of unfair treatment.” 

She said it is time to acknowledge the mistakes of the past “and to act with common decency/humanity”.

Joseph Sikulu, Pacific regional director at, said in the same statement: “Pacific representatives are fatigued in climate negotiations as we see empty promises and unfulfilled pledges. Global North countries have a responsibility to ensure that loss and damage funding is not only sufficient, but also accessible to those who need it most.”

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