Climate change tension at Pacific Islands Forum

11:30 am on 10 September 2015

While leaders have talked of solidarity, cracks have appeared at the Pacific Islands Forum over the subject of climate change.

A high tide across Ejit Island in Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands on March 3, 2014, causing widespread flooding. Officials in the Marshall Islands blamed climate change for severe flooding in the Pacific nation's capital Majuro.

Flooding caused by huge spring tides in the Marshall Islands in March 2014, which officials blamed on climate change. Photo: AFP

Representatives from the 16 forum member countries have gathered in Port Moresby to address issues concerning the region, but there are a number of conflicting positions, particularly when it comes to Australia and New Zealand and climate change.

Small island states have called for a global moratorium on new coal mines, which may struggle to get the backing of the wider forum, and enough of a reduction in emissions so that global temperature increases do not exceed 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels.

More developed countries like Australia and New Zealand have targeted 2°C in the past.

Calls for the region's metropolitan powers to adopt more significant measures to tackle climate change have taken on added urgency in a year where the islands have experienced climate chaos on a number of fronts.

The devastation of Vanuatu by Cyclone Pam in March was the most pointed example of the risks associated with increased cyclone severity in the region.

Flooding caused by huge spring tides in parts of Micronesia in late summer was blamed by local officials on climate change - as were unseasonal storms still affecting parts of the region.

And now, several countries in the Pacific are struggling with the worst drought in decades as this year's El Niño weather pattern takes full grip.

In Papua New Guinea's Highlands alone, dozens of deaths in recent weeks have been linked to food shortages caused by the prolonged drought and severe frosts.

And, just to underline the climate disorder in the Pacific, freak hailstorms killed 11 people in Indonesia's tropical Papua province in July.

Kiribati President Anote Tong (centre) listens to a speaker during the smaller island states leaders' meeting as part of the Pacific Islands Forum in Port Moresby.

Kiribati President Anote Tong (centre) listens to a speaker during the smaller island state leaders' meeting as part of the Pacific Islands Forum in Port Moresby. Photo: AFP

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said he was comfortable with his country's stance and position on climate change.

Kiribati President Anote Tong said the Pacific Islands Forum could split over the climate change issue. He said there needed to be a uniform position to take to the global UN climate change COP21 meeting in Paris later this year.

His counterpart from Palau, Tommy Remengesau, echoed his sentiments, saying the time for talk had ended and that urgent action was needed - which would require greater unity.

"This is the challenge facing regionalism - what can we do that brings out the most good for everybody, especially when it comes to matters of life and death and survival, sustainability?

"Those issues are the very reason why there is a Pacific Islands Forum. If you don't believe in those then there really should be no solid effort here."

Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare talks to his New Zealand counterpart John Key at the 205 Pacific Forum summit in Port Moresby.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (left) talks to his New Zealand counterpart John Key at the 2015 Pacific Islands Forum in Port Moresby. Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi conceded there was frustration among Pacific nations.

"All the Pacific islands are always frustrated because you are not talking about small changes," he said.

"You are talking about survivability - because, if climate change is not stopped, and the obvious occurs, like a rise in sea level, a lot of the countries in the Pacific would just disappear."

Island leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum summit in Port Moresby press their call for greater response to climate change by developed countries.

Island leaders press their call for a more significant response to climate change by developed countries. Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

Niue Premier Toke Talagi said, while there were differences in the various countries' positions, they were understandable.

"Every country has the right to express their view about climate change. We must accept and respect the fact that each country will have their own differing circumstances in relation to economies and so on," he said.

"This is the same as Niue so therefore I don't have any problem with New Zealand and Australia being different."

Samoa's Tuilaepa said, despite differences, he did not expect animosity to develop between the various nations.

"We talk like brothers and that's why we call our exchange retreat because you can swear at each other and no one knows."

He said he still hoped a consensus on climate change could be reached at this year's forum.