It was always going to be a showdown on the climate crisis.
As leaders from the Pacific gathered in Tuvalu for their annual Pacific Islands Forum, there was one subject destined to dwarf all others and which pitted Australia, with its increasing emissions and plans for new coalmines, against its small island neighbours.
And PIF 2019 turned out to be exactly that: a reckoning on the climate emergency confronting the Pacific.
There were moving speeches from young Pasifika speaking of their fears for their future, tears in the leaders’ retreat, and accusations that Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, had shown such disrespect toward his counterparts during their marathon 12-hour meeting, that the Fijian prime minister said Pacific countries may be driven further into the arms of China.
The choice of location for the forum was significant. Tuvalu, located about two hours on a plane north of Fiji, is one of the countries most at risk. The main island, where the capital, Funafuti, is located, is an ever-decreasing sliver of land, at its narrowest just 20m wide, and just 3m above sea level. It faces a host of problems including salinity of the water table, which makes growing crops extremely difficult, coastal erosion that is seeing islands crumble into the sea, storm surges and rising temperatures.
The event was a huge undertaking for Tuvalu, which is designated as a “least developed country” and has a population of around 11,000 people. The convention centre, as well as about 75% of accommodation used for the event, was built specifically for the conference, and right up until people started arriving for the forum, Tuvaluans were laying electricity cables, painting, bringing in furniture – and working in shifts around the clock to get ready.
To feed delegates, different communities from Tuvalu’s outer islands took turns preparing and bringing in food, presenting lavish lunches and dinners of crab, lobster, fish, chicken, salads, taro and custard coconut cake. On several nights, large traditional dances or fateles were held, with the different islands taking it in turn to run the night’s entertainment.
Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, told the Guardian ahead of the conference that Tuvalu was seeing the event as an opportunity to showcase its culture – to show the world what would be lost, apart from land, if Tuvalu were to disappear.
From the opening speech of the climate crisis summit, delivered by Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, held the day before the forum officially opened, it was clear that Pacific leaders had their eyes on one forum member country in particular when it came to climate action.
“I appeal to Australia to do everything possible to achieve a rapid transition from coal to energy sources that do not contribute to climate change,” he said, adding that coal posed an “existential threat” to Pacific countries.
When Scott Morrison arrived on Wednesday afternoon, he was asked by Sopoaga, as all leaders were, to stop and consider the installation built at the entry to the airport – a model of an island in distress with a moat around it, in which young children sat.
Groups of children sang a welcome song: “We have a problem, we need to solve it, we need to start right now.” Before singing a version of Sopoaga’s famous statement on climate change: “Save Tuvalu to save the world.”
Morrison’s announcement of $500m in climate resilience and adaptation for the Pacific region on Monday night, while welcomed by Pacific leaders, did not buy Australia much of a reprieve. The next day, Sopoaga said: “No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse to not to do the right thing, which is to cut down on your emissions, including not opening your coalmines.”
The main event of the week, the leaders’ retreat, was held on Thursday, with leaders, in the customary matching shirts, sitting down to thrash out the language of a forum communique and climate change statement, that will be used as the basis of regional decision-making.
At dawn on the morning of the retreat, as he stood watching an early-morning demonstration of traditional Tuvaluan fishing methods, Sopoaga said he was optimistic and thought negotiations would be wrapped up by lunchtime.
Sopoaga said the fishing method was a good metaphor for what the leaders were trying to do that day: a group of people walk out into the water and advance in a line, slapping and waving palm branches underwater, to frighten the fish which are herded toward the reef and then eventually surrounded by the group who hold hands and advance, trapping them with their bodies before they are scooped up with nets.
“You go in unison, you go like a human net. It’s a community thing, it’s a collective. I think that’s the way to address climate change. We must base it on a community approach,” Sopoaga said.
But that community was sorely tested throughout Thursday, in a meeting between the leaders that Vanuatu’s foreign minister described as “fierce at times” and almost broke down twice, due to Australia’s refusal to budge on certain red lines, including insisting on the removal of mentions of coal, limiting warming to under 1.5C and setting a plan for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
Sopoaga said the next day he had told Morrison at one point during discussions: “You are trying to save your economy, I am trying to save my people.”
Emotions ran high, with Sopoaga revealing that at one point during discussions, the Tongan prime minister, Akilisi Pohiva, cried as he reflected on a presentation given by two young women at the climate change summit earlier in the week about their fears for the future.
Pohiva cut a dignified but heartrending figure throughout the week. He attended the summit despite serious health concerns, which he told the Guardian meant this year’s PIF would likely be his last. His frailty was evident, but so too was his deep feeling for Tuvalu, with other leaders speaking of the enormous respect his presence, despite his illness, demonstrated for the region and its concerns.
An exhausted Sopoaga eventually emerged from the retreat venue on Thursday night, after almost 12 hours of negotiations, and told the waiting press that an agreement had been reached on the forum communique and climate change statement.
Australia had succeeded in watering down the language of the communique, and keeping out any mention of coal and its other “red lines”. But while Australia may have succeeded in softening the language, the means by which it achieved that victory seemed to undermine the government’s much-touted Pacific step-up, in which Canberra seeks to engage more concertedly with the region, particularly in light of China’s increasing interest in it.
The Fijian prime minister expressed his anger with how events had unfolded in the leaders’ retreat, telling the Guardian that Morrison had been “very insulting and condescending” and that his behaviour could lead countries to reject Australia in favour of engagement with China.
“After what we went through with Morrison, nothing can be worse than him,” Bainimarama said.
As the accommodation was packed up and the Australian defence force Hercules planes took delegates away, the people of Tuvalu remained, facing the same threats and dangers they did before leaders came to debate what to do about them.
On the final night of the forum, a clearly disappointed Sopoaga urged Tuvaluans who were unhappy with the “compromised” language coming out of the event not to lose hope, and he urged the rest of the world to remember the plight of his people: “We ask, please understand this, our people are dying.”