This week, the United States sent a delegation to Paris to negotiate an international agreement on climate change. While each country has its own interests to consider at the Paris Conference, delegations must realize that the world needs a strong collective response to the problem of carbon emissions. As a large power with significant influence, the U.S. has a moral obligation to mitigate the effects of climate change, not just for itself but for other nations that would suffer from inaction. One region that is especially susceptible to the dangers of climate change is the Pacific Islands region. According to The Fund for Peace, which produces an index on the political stability of every nation, not one Pacific Island nation is currently categorized as a stable. (*Aside from Australia and New Zealand, which are usually not included in the term Pacific Island nations. This statement generally refers to small isolated islands in the South Pacific.) Inaction on climate change threatens to exacerbate regional vulnerability there, and as such, the U.S. and other world powers must provide strong leadership to preclude the possibility of disaster.
Incentives for Preservation
Many islands in this region are host to famous historical sites that could, with rising sea levels, be washed away or damaged by changing weather conditions. UNESCO has designated 32 properties in the Pacific region as World Heritage Sites. This includes areas such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Easter Island’s Rapa Nui National Park and many more. All of these sites are threatened by climate change. One area, East Rennell of the Solomon Islands, has already been designated a World Heritage Site in Danger by the World Heritage Committee. Continuing to ignore the dangers of climate change will put both it and other important cultural landmarks in danger.
Our current indifference to this problem is ironic when one considers the U.S.’s public stance on the value of culturally important objects and sites. During the present conflict in the Middle East, the United States has routinely condemned the destruction of cultural artifacts and ancient monuments as acts of barbarism. When ISIS destroyed Palmyra Temple in Syria, the world was aghast. In Secretary of State John Kerry’s own words, the destruction of cultural heritage sites like the temple was “stealing the soul of millions. How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization.” It would be just as shocking and shameful if we did not apply the same standard to the grave threat that the heritage sites of Pacific people face if inaction on climate change continues.
There are sixteen independent island countries in the South Pacific region. (*I define this as membership within the Pacific Islands Forum, the pan-regional governance entity of the region. The countries included here are: Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.) There are also numerous protectorates, colonies, and territories of other countries within the region. According to the United Nations, the estimated population of the region is 39 million people across 3.2 million square miles. Economic activity is concentrated in fishing, agriculture, some natural resource extraction, and recently, tourism. Most of the smaller islands rely on trade with and foreign aid from Australia and New Zealand, the only islands economically comparable to Western European countries. Their isolation and uniform lack of expansive land make it difficult for these polities to maintain strong economies. Rising sea levels could devastate local economies, swallowing up scarce arable land. Without an economic base and the ability to provide traditional exports, the island’s governments would soon run out of funds, undercutting services and further destabilizing the region. If the nation itself isn’t swallowed entirely, then a large amount of the population would become displaced and stateless if the government caved. Not engaging in rigorous negotiations to reduce anthropogenic contributions to warming in the Pacific accepts a trajectory in which catastrophic floods incrementally destroy the viability of Pacific cultures, and could potentially lead to the complete annihilation of these nations.
This problem also extends to the protectorates in the region as well. In the U.S. territory of American Samoa for example, the island of Manu’a has a completely cash-based economy. If ships cannot reach the island due to inclement weather for an extended period of time, the island cannot maintain sufficient receive the necessary influx of cash reserves, grinding the economy to a halt. Climate change threatens to make such inhospitable weather permanent in this part of the word.
Ultimately, it’s in the United States’ best interest to seek a strong reduction in the likelihood of climate change’s destabilizing impact in the Pacific Islands, especially since that region’s stability is vital to the United States’ interests. This is especially true if the United States wishes to maintain momentum behind its so-called “pivot to Asia,” a large part of which requires the integrity of political entities in the Pacific region to remain stable. Deals like the TPP require partners that can provide economic benefits. However, it has become clear that this very same deal would contribute to worsening environmental conditions, ultimately hurting both the Pacific and American people it purports to benefit. Not only would we end up losing any economic benefits we gain presently, but we would lose significant future benefits, considering that major trading partners in the region like Japan and Australia would be threatened.
To bring the issue closer to home, the 2016 presidential elections will prove to be critical, as America must provide leadership and protect any gains made during the Paris Climate Conference. Candidates remain divided over exactly what to do in response to climate change, however, and most don’t list it as a first priority. In the first Democratic presidential debate Bernie Sanders was the only candidate to state that climate change was the biggest threat to national security that faced America today. Other Democrats, as well as Republicans, point to traditional fears surrounding nuclear proliferation as their first national security priority. It also doesn’t help that political elites in this country receive mixed signals from the electorate. In spite of the fact that 69 percent of Americans believe that climate change is real and that it is caused by human activity, another 59 percent wanted the Keystone XL pipeline to be built, despite the very real and devastating effects it could have upon the environment and its estimated contributions to climate change. American political leaders must understand that climate change is more than just a peripheral concern, and as such must actively work to build consensus towards policy that can mitigate disaster. Policymakers in the United States do not have the luxury to remain idle in this issue; there is too much at stake and too many lives in danger for them to remain inactive.
Action surrounding climate change prevention has been slow in coming, even though America and China have signed executive agreements seeking to pursue a reduction in carbon emissions by 2025 and 2030 respectively. Concerted multilateral action remains elusive but is important to galvanize if we are to help protect not only the Pacific Islands, but the entire globe. The world is at a tipping point, and despite twenty United Nations conferences on climate change, no binding universal accord has been produced. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has gone on record saying that discussion and action surrounding the issue of climate change has, troublingly, been conducted at “a snail’s pace.” Therefore, we must quicken the discussion and accelerate the action, lest we become victims of our own inaction.
Luka Fatuesi is a junior studying international relations. He is interested in global governance, human rights advocacy, and as a Samoan, the Pacific region and its place in the international system.