Fighting Ocean Pollution and Climate Change Is a Two-Front War

Speech by the Incoming COP 23 President Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama

Speaking to Pacific island leaders and diplomats in Suva last week, the incoming President of the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn in November (COP23), Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, said his most important goal was to preserve the multilateral consensus for decisive action on climate change that was reached in the Paris Climate Change Agreement at the end of 2015.

17 March 2017 – Bula vinaka and good morning. We are gathered here because we face a threat to our very existence. Yes, on the surface we are charting our progress toward the UN’s SDG14, but our real objective is not to simply reach a milestone. Our objectives are to stave off disaster, to save our oceans for ourselves and all humanity—and then to move from surviving to thriving.

In a very real sense, we are fighting a two-front war. One front is the fight to keep the oceans clean and to sustain the marine plant and animal life on which we depend for our livelihoods and that keep the earth in proper balance. Land-based pollution, waste in the ocean, and growing maritime traffic are all deteriorating the marine ecosystem, and a growing world population with ever-more purchasing power is increasing pressure on the stocks of food fish in the oceans.

So it is heartening that we will have the first-ever UN Conference on Oceans in June, and I have very high expectations that it will set the stage for our collective action to save our oceans. As you know, Fiji is co-hosting the conference with Sweden because we believe it is important for Pacific Island states to be very visible in the struggle to protect our oceans.

At the conference, we will learn the truth about the current state of the ocean. The top technical agencies and the world’s foremost scientists and scholars will inform us of the current state of our oceans, based on the best science and data available.

This will be the moment of truth. It will tell us what we need to do—as governments, communities, industries and people. Seven partnership dialogues will provide a platform for governments and communities of scholars, industries, citizens and NGOs to work together constructively. I think we will see old partnerships invigorated and new and innovative ones formed.

Our regional preparatory meeting here will provide the necessary direction for the negotiations, which begin this month—on the call to action on oceans that will be issued in New York in June. So this is our chance to reach a consensus that will push the conference to take bold action. We have the facts before us, and we know intimately the way our people, our cultures, and our economies depend on the ocean. We are knitted closely together, and I believe there is very little daylight among us in our positions. So this is no time for timidity, and we can show that one thing we are not is timid.

My fellow leaders,
The other front is the fight to slow the growth of global warming and, unfortunately, also to adapt to the changes we know are coming—to rising seas, encroaching sea water, violent storms and periods of drought. Not all the stresses on our oceans are caused by global warming, but many are. The two are related, and we must work together to confront both these challenges at the same time.

We in the Pacific don’t need to be reminded of the effects of climate change. The people of Fiji and Vanuatu have had a very bitter recent experience with Cyclones Winston and Pam and realise more than most the urgency of addressing this crisis. And in Fiji, we have already begun relocating villages to higher ground away from the water.

Of course, we Pacific Island nations are not the only ones affected by the stresses on our ocean and by climate change. The pollution in the oceans is everyone’s problem. Human society is simply producing more rubbish than we can comfortably handle, and every day, disposable items find their way into the hands of people who don’t think twice about tossing them onto the street, into a storm drain or directly into the sea. Add to that ocean-borne refuse produced by tsunamis and other events, and you know why beaches anywhere can look like landfills on any given day. And that goes for our beautiful Pacific Island beaches as well.

They have been suffering in California from climate change, where years of drought caused a water emergency and were then followed by enough snow and rain this year to create a new crisis. And if the snow that just fell in the mountains—to great cheers and sighs of relief, I might add—melts too quickly, they have another problem altogether, because California doesn’t have anywhere to put all that water.

So no, this is not a Pacific problem or an island problem. It is a problem for everyone. But it is a particular problem for us, because most of us sit on the small patches of land that God gave us millions of years ago, when they rose up above the waves from the ocean floor. For us, the effects of global warming and stresses on the ocean are immediate and potentially catastrophic.
That gives us tremendous moral authority to lead the charge on both these fronts—to promote sound global stewardship of the oceans and to slow the rate of climate change.

When Fiji stepped forward to take on the presidency of the next UN Conference on Climate Change, we did it not only for ourselves but for all Pacific Islanders and all those people living in other vulnerable parts of the world. As COP President, I am obliged to act on behalf of all 7.5 billion people on earth, but I will naturally be bringing a Pacific perspective to the proceedings.

“Our most important goal is to preserve the multilateral consensus for decisive action on climate change that was reached in the Paris Agreement at the end of 2015. We cannot afford to have any government renege on the commitments that were made. Many countries face short-term domestic pressures, and there is no doubt that changing the behaviours that led us to this crisis will not be easy, but the rewards will be great. And besides, we have no choice.”

My fellow leaders,
The time for casting blame is over. I will be the first to admit that I have railed against the developed economies for causing this crisis. And to be sure, it’s the developed economies that produce the most carbon emissions. But they are also responsible for most of the gains in technology, science, medicine and other fields that have improved the lives of all people—and the technology and learning we will need to solve this crisis. And it is also a fact that we have been striving to give our people a chance at that same standard of living.

As developing countries have modernized and created a middle class, they have also contributed a share of emissions and waste to the environment.

So we are all responsible in some way for the warming of the planet, and the time has come to pay the bill. We all must work together to deal with the consequences of modernity. For sure, our part in this is small, but we strengthen our moral authority and our political case by fully accepting our small share of the blame. Every nation must do what it can. All people must do what they can.

My fellow leaders,
I am very concerned—in fact, I am alarmed—by some of the latest scientific research that we are being shown. Even at the current rate of global warming—one degree above that of the industrial age—some of the effects of climate change are very grave. The damage to our coral reefs continues, as we have seen with the latest research on the state of the Great Barrier Reef. And agriculture is suffering and causing mass migrations of people. It is happening already in Africa and on the Asian mainland.

This isn’t some crisis down the track. It is a crisis that we are living today—now. We must get the world to not only adhere to the agreement we made in Paris and fully implement it. But even that will not be enough: We must start devising more radical action to accelerate the reduction of carbon emissions.

So I am making an earnest appeal to you all as Pacific leaders to get behind Fiji’s presidency. I say this not for me or for Fiji, but because this presidency will take OUR case before the world. This presidency will represent a consensus effort on the part of Pacific Island nations to lead the world to do what is right. And necessary. And just.

I will be counting on your strong support over the coming months—all the way to Bonn in November. We need to present a strong and united front at that meeting—Pacific Island leaders of one mind, with arms locked together to achieve one goal: to save humanity from its ultimate folly.

I am taking the opportunity that this gathering presents to invite my fellow Pacific leaders to join me in Bonn. We need to present a united face to the world because as you all know, we are bearing the brunt of climate change and desperately need to get our message across.

So please be in Bonn with me. We owe it to our own people and to every citizen on Earth to take every advantage of the opportunity we have this year to put our case before the world. We have the credibility that goes with living the effects of climate change. And we have the moral authority that goes with the fact that we are bearing a disproportionate risk and a disproportionate burden. We are doing as much as we can right here at home, and we will need help.

That is why I also intend to place a special emphasis on climate adaptation through financial models and technical solutions, to get the world to focus on developing new and innovative ways to build our resilience to the effects of climate change. This is not a time for continuing arguments about the science. It is time to do more to equip vulnerable nations with the means to survive the extreme weather events, changing weather patterns and rising sea levels that we are experiencing now and are bound to get much worse.
Thank you for attending this gathering, and I again ask you for your support and your prayers. It is time for the Pacific – with one voice – to raise it on behalf of the many hundreds of millions of people in vulnerable parts of the world. And that’s what we intend to do in Bonn and beyond.

I thank you for attention and for your support.

Vinaka vakalevu.