“None of Us are Safe until We Meet the Challenge Posed by Climate Change” – COP President’s Speech for 20th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers

Fijian Prime Minister and COP23 President Frank Bainimarama’s remarks for the opening of the 20th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers.

Bula vinaka and a very good evening to you all.

This is a proud day for Fiji as we host the first gathering of Commonwealth education ministers to be held in our country. And wherever you come from in the world from the 53 nations that make up the Commonwealth family, I warmly welcome you on behalf of the Fijian people. It is our pleasure to have you in Fiji and I hope you enjoy our world famous hospitality.

It also happens to be a sad day, a day of somber reflection for the Fijian people as we commemorate the second anniversary of Tropical Cyclone Winston, which slammed into our nation with terrible force on 20 February 2016. Winston was the biggest storm ever to make landfall in the southern hemisphere, packing record winds at its peak of more than 300 kilometres an hour.

44 of our loved ones were killed in the affected areas; many thousands of Fijians lost their homes; public infrastructure, including many schools, was damaged or destroyed; and when it was over, the overall cost amounted to one third of our GDP.

Our people have recognised the need for a new standard of resilience to meet the constant threat we now face, even outside the traditional cyclone season. They know – because they lived through it – that we must build back stronger and better to survive the more frequent and more intense cyclones that are coming because of climate change.

Of course, homes and schools can be rebuilt. What can’t be replaced are the 44 men, women and children who died in the affected areas, their lives cut short by Winston’s fury.

They were someone’s father, someone’s mother, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins. They were ordinary Fijians – the backbone of our nation. And because we are a small country, they were known to many of us and they mattered to all of us. We still mourn their passing and on this anniversary we remember them, as they rest in the loving arms of Almighty God.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I ask you to rise for a moment of silence for those who died in Cyclone Winston. And let us also remember the people of Samoa, Tonga and the southern Lau group of Fiji, many of whom are suffering as we gather here today in the wake of Cyclone Gita.

Thank you.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is singularly appropriate – given the new age of climate uncertainty that is upon us – that sustainability and resilience be the theme of this conference. We all know that education is the key to sustainable development because it equips people with the skills they need to benefit their own lives and the lives of those around them. But governments at every level must also place sustainability at the core of their decision-making.

• Sustainable development that protects our natural heritage and treads lightly on the environment.
• Sustainable policies that work holistically and which have longevity to extend the benefits of development to as many of
our citizens as possible.
• Sustainable spending that doesn’t cripple nations, states and cities with excessive debt.
• And sustainable economies that balance the needs of government and the private sector, with both working hand in hand
to ensure continuing sustainable development.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, the global community has committed itself to achieving 17 Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs by 2030. But none of them can be achieved without fulfilling SDG 13 – Climate Change – and SDG 14 – Life below Water or the Health of our Oceans.

They are inextricably linked and everything else depends on them. In that, no sustainable development at all will be possible without decisive action on climate change and decisive action to reverse the degradation of our oceans.

People ask me: Why did you take on the presidency of COP23 when there is so much to do in Fiji? Why did you co- chair the World Ocean Conference last year? And my answer is very simple: Because our lives depend on it. The lives of every Fijian and every citizen of climate-vulnerable nations around the world.

• They include Pacific Islanders who face the prospect of their nations disappearing beneath the rising waves altogether.
• The people of Bangladesh and other low-lying continental states also assailed by large-scale flooding and storms.
• Prolonged droughts and arable land turning to desert in vast swathes of Africa and elsewhere.
• The beautiful city of Cape Town facing the prospect of running out of water altogether.
• Residents of California, Portugal and Spain battling fierce wildfires, with significant loss of life and infrastructure.
• Increased acidity in our oceans and coral bleaching destroying our reefs;
• And all over the world, threats to food security posed by drought and salinity playing havoc with our agriculture.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, none of us are safe until we meet the challenge posed by climate change. None of us are truly secure. As I keep saying: we are all in the same canoe. And as a global community, we must do everything in our power to meet this challenge and resist all attempts to slow the process down.

As COP President, I want maximum ambition, maximum action and with maximum urgency. As I said on the beachfront a short time ago, only by embracing the most ambitious target of the Paris Agreement can we avoid catastrophe. Zero net carbon emissions as soon as possible to limit average global warming to no more than 1.5 degree Celsius over that of the pre-industrial age.

At our Heads of Government Meeting in London in April, I will be specifically asking all 53 Commonwealth countries for that commitment. And I urge every nation – as well as non-state stakeholders – to work with Fiji to make a success of the 2018 Talanoa Dialogue, in which we are seeking more ambition in all our Nationally Determined Contributions to reduce heat trapping carbon emissions – our NDCs.

In London, I will also be pressing for the Blue Charter – a key feature for CHOGM – to be as ambitious as possible to adequately address the threat to our oceans. I cannot stress enough that the two are interlinked. Which is why I am very gratified that among our many successes at the COP23 negotiations in Bonn in November, many in the global community endorsed and are joining our Ocean Pathway Partnership. Vital for the future of Fiji. Vital for the future of our planet.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, after ensuring our very survival, nothing is more important to any nation than to equip its young people for satisfying, worthwhile lives by giving them access to quality education. The future of all our nations depends on it – our political and economic status in the world, our standing in the great global forums, respect from others, respect for ourselves.

By far my government’s proudest achievement has been our education revolution that began in 2013 and we intend to continue it. In fact, we now cannot stop it. Because just as you are never too old to learn new things, the process of maximizing the learning process has no conclusion. Constant development, constant refining and capacity building, constantly seeking new horizons and new opportunities.

The centerpiece of that revolution was the introduction, for the first time in Fiji, of free education in our primary and secondary schools. Plus free textbooks and subsidised transportation. At the same time – recognising the importance of early education – we developed a pre-school sector and there are now a lot more kindergartens in Fiji. We introduced the country’s first tertiary loans scheme. We significantly expanded the number of scholarships available to hard-performing students. And we set up a national network of technical colleges to encourage participation in the trades and provide Fiji with many of the skills it needs to grow our economy.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, as with anything on this scale and level of ambition, we have had our challenges. Among other things, we are streamlining the Education Ministry to be more responsive. And we are working with our teachers to increase their skills base and financially reward our best performers. But for all the challenges, I believe our education revolution is the biggest single thing we have done as a government and as a nation to benefit our people.

• We have ended the heartbreak of generations of low-income families who couldn’t afford to give their children a proper education.
• We have opened up new horizons for even the most disadvantaged young person – a world of opportunity – and given our girls and young women opportunities their mothers never had.
• We are producing a fairer and more inclusive society.
• And we have laid out a vision for every Fijian that through focus and hard work, we can eventually step out of the ranks of the developing nations and into the ranks of the educated nation states.

The wonderful thing is that our people are responding. And speaking personally, I get the biggest thrill from reading the stories in the media of individual Fijians who are benefitting. Like the one last week of Peni Kauivalenibula, a Lauan from Vanuabalavu, who dropped out in Year 11 and spent two years living on the streets of Suva. Peni is now studying to be a quantity surveyor at the Fiji National University through the government’s tertiary loans scheme. And I was very moved to see him tearfully thanking the government for giving him a second chance of an education and another shot at life.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what makes the education sector so satisfying for politicians and educators, no matter where we come from in the world. The ability to change people’s lives – to empower them through the acquisition of knowledge to benefit not only themselves and their families but benefit our nations and help build a better world.

I wish you every success this week as you link education with the great challenge of building a more resilient future in the face of the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. But I also want to leave you with the positive thought that it is because of education that humanity is able to bring all of its ingenuity and skills to the task of confronting this crisis head on.

The transition from dirty energy such as fossil fuels to clean energy such as hydro, solar and wind is already happening. Emerging technologies such as battery storage offer us the prospect of being able to ensure the supply of adequate, affordable power and still achieve net zero carbon emissions.

What we need is a sustained global effort to scale up investment in these technologies and make them more affordable, especially for developing countries around the world. And as COP President, I am convinced that will eventually happen. Not least because humanity – unlike the dinosaurs – has a great capacity to adapt to changed circumstances.

So rather than a message of doom and gloom, let us all fire the imaginations of our educators – and through them, our young people – about what is possible if the world can finally come together to overcome this threat.

Thank you for bringing your intellectual input and experience to our collective effort this week. And I now have the great pleasure to formally open the 20th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.