Climate crisis top Pacific agenda item and it’s a security issue, says Ardern

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NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at PIF 2022 ... "the resilience of our region and our general security as a region as well" is at stake. Image: Samuel Rillstone/RNZ

RNZ News

Addressing media on developments at the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says making sure the region is investing now in initiatives that improve climate resilience is incredibly important.

Ardern is attending the forum alongside Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta.

The funding announced for Pacific crop seeds this afternoon allowed the preservation of the region’s biodiversity, “which is incredibly important to all of us”, Ardern said.

She said it was important for the region to move away as much as possible from the reliance on fossil fuels.

“The price impacts that has, they’re increasingly becoming unaffordable, but also the fact that offers an opportunity for climate mitigation as well. I expect that will be one of many things that comes through the Pacific Islands Forum.”

Climate change had been top of the agenda at every forum she had been to, Ardern said, and represented a huge security issue in itself.

“All of these things come back to essentially the resilience of our region and our general security as a region as well.”

If others like Australia chose to follow New Zealand on increasing climate change-related spending, that could only be a good thing for all, she said.

“In some cases quite a bit of background work needs to be done on funding some of the initatives … one of the things that has been a barrier has been the inability to progress projects on the ground because of covid.

The media conference.                               Video: RNZ News

“I expect us to be trying to make up for a bit of lost time there, and that goes for aid and development funding across the region.”

There was, for the most part, an absence of legal mechanisms to protect the environment, and New Zealand was keen to play a role in ensuring that was in place, Ardern said.

Uncertainty after leaders withdraw
Uncertainty has been swirling around the forum since Sunday when it was revealed that Kiribati president Taneti Maamau would not attend the gathering and his nation had formally withdrawn from the forum.

China denied claims it was behind Kiribati’s withdrawal.

Asked at a media briefing, the spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, said the claims were groundless.

Wang said China did not interfere in the internal affairs of Pacific Islands countries and hoped to see greater solidarity and closer cooperation among the nations for common development.

Since then there have been fresh defections — Nauru’s President Lionel Aingimea, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown and Marshall Islands President David Kabua.

Ardern said she first discussed the concerns from Micronesian countries about them potentially withdrawing from the forum when they first arose.

“And sought to speak to a number of members from Micronesia to better understand those issues and how we could support resolution and today it was actually a follow-up conversation,” Ardern said.

Potential to move forward
She said the fact the Suva agreement had come forth from a number of members from Micronesia, there was the potential to move forward.

“We have now the potential to agree and to move on collectively, with those new arrangements in place.”

On Kiribati, which revoked its PIF membership, Ardern said she would point to their own sentiments.

“If they were highlighting any vulnerability for them it would be climate-related. You know, they’re suffering significant drought at present and have said that they wish to continue to work with the forum because these issues are so pressing and real and present for them now.

“Do we hope that they’ll come back into the forum formally? Absolutely — and that’s my hope, I think it’s everyone’s hope — but I think we have an agreement now that Micronesian members have broadly indicated their support for. They were at the table in developing it and our hope is over time Kiribati will choose to return…

“I think I imagine all forum members will likely keep up their engagement with Kiribati, and their support for Kiribati. It is an incredibly tough time.”

She said it was disappointing Kiritbati was not there when the 2050 climate strategy is set to be endorsed, “but at the same time they themselves have identified that climate change is an area where they wish to continue to work with the forum”.

‘Unity incredibly important’
“Yes, unity is incredibly important to us and I think we all still aspire to that, but we cannot at the same time halt the progress that needs to be made on working collectively on climate issues.”

Ardern said she met this morning with the president of Palau.

In coming days she expects to meet with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, and with Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

“Obviously we’ve had issues within Micronesia for some time, the Suva agreement on the table, a chance to check in on members from within the region and their satisfaction with the agreement that has been reached.”

Pacific Islands Forum members have also heard from the likes of the World Bank, the Asia Developoment Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

“Very similar themes, reflecting on the war in Ukraine exacerbating energy prices, the impact of inflation, supply chain constraints and of course Covid lockdowns in China and the impact that will have on the region,” Ardern said.

China and the Pacific
Ardern said China was an example of a development partner that had been around the Pacific for decades but had increased its activity and changed the way in which it engaged.

“We’ve, from New Zealand’s perspective, said that there are elements of that — particularly when it comes to the security arrangements of the region — that concern us.

“On the other hand you’ve had the United States who equally have been present and engaged in the region perhaps over the past few years waning in their engagement, and at the behest of many in the region, are now seeking to re-engage again.

“You can see that all of this activity occurring at the same time does mean we have a more contested environment. We’ve got to come back to the principles.”

She said those principles were to prioritise the Pacific, to make sure there was no coercion in play, and avoiding militarisation of the region.

New Zealand had been one of the top contributors to the region for a long, long time but “it’s more than just whether or not you’re a donor in the region”, Ardern said.

“This is our home this is the place we live and it’s who we are, and I’d like to think that the way we do things — the relationship that we build — also sets us apart from other nations”.

New Zealand’s position on the Solomon Islands’ agreement with China was that nations had their own sovereignty to determine their own relationships, she said.

“But security arrangements have wider impacts and that is really what we’re drawing to the attention of the Solomons and equally we have been present there to help support the security needs of the region — and if there have been deficiencies in that I’d like to hear what they were.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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