11 March 2009

Legal issues: sovereign extinction, climate refugees

By Jason Brown, Island Business International

Possibilities for sovereign extinction across Pacific Islands are not being ruled out by climate change officials at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP).

"SPREP has raised the issue in several different fora and the sorts of legal and other issues that would arise which would need to be tackled," says lead Climate Change adviser Espen Ronneburg.

"Our point has been that this is something that should be avoided by taking stronger measures to reduce the impacts of climate change."

As timeframes around man-made global warming implode, there are concerns the regional agency is not keeping up with rapidly accelerating events. Ronneburg admits SPREP can do more.

"On the unexpected issues arising from new research, SPREP is advising members," he told ISLANDS BUSINESs.

"We are working on a climate change portal to give greater speed to info sharing."

Severe weather events like cyclones will render many islands uninhabitable decades before atolls finally disappear under water.

Severe cyclones-category 4 and 5-doubled worldwide between 1970 and 2004, to an annual average of 18, not counting the five cyclones that hit the Cook Islands in 2005, among others.

Deeper concerns exist.

It's not just the frequency but its intensity. Australian meteorologists are on record as calling for a sixth category to be added to cyclone forces.

From sovereign extinction comes another issue-climate refugees.

"The issue of climate change refugees is a contentious one," says Ronneburg.

"No such status is internationally recognised. There are also conflicting views amongst the Pacific Islands countries on what stance to take."

Like almost any regional organisation, Ronneburg says: "We have to take our lead from the members."

But he defends the seemingly low priority given to climate change.

In 2006, SPREP dedicated US1.1 million-just 14% of its total budget-to climate change, most to local "adaptation" strategies than global strategies. For 2008, that percentage more than doubled to 35% with US$2.2 million out of a total budget of US$6.6 million.

However, only a tiny slice of that goes to global action. In fact, a proposal aimed at raising awareness of climate change urgencies at a regional, political level is still listed as "no project" some five years after appearing on the site, and nearly three years after ISLANDS BUSINESS first started asking about it.

Ronneburg defends SPREP against accusations that the regional body remains captured by post-colonial influences, namely free market interests in Australia and New Zealand.

"In terms of pressure from Australia, I would say no. There may have been some issues historically, but with the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, there were a lot of changes," he says, referring to a change in policy after the Howard years gave way to the current Rudd Government.

Part of the problem was how islands states viewed Australia, Ronneburg citing "a number of reasons."

"One was the Pacific Islands countries' perception of the direction of the Australia-World Bank partnership. Another was the wish of national coordinators to hold all of their financial allocations and not go the regional route-which thus made it more complex to resource for Australia. We do have a major policy framework namely the PIFACC and its Action Plan."

Recent enough not to be in the 2004-2009 action plan, PIFACC (the 2005-2016 Pacific Islands Framework for Action on Climate Change) marks a step towards raising awareness at higher levels.

In September last year, SPREP outlined "using our role" as the secretariat of the Pacific Parliamentary Assembly on Population and Development and the Forum Presiding Officers (Speakers of parliaments) and Clerks Conference to "alert the political arena across the region about climate change and cross-cutting adaptations required. This year the theme for both conferences is Climate Change".

SPREP promises to "further mobilise political decision-making on climate change among our members at the national level through conferences with ministers and 'heads of department' meetings. Collectively, ministers we serve cover more than half the full cabinet portfolios in all member countries and territories. This provides the partnership responsible for implementing PIFACC with a powerful opportunity to raise awareness of the risks of climate change and to galvanise high-level political support for adaptive action".

SPREP critics privately concede that worst case scenarios have only worsened dramatically in the last two to three years. They worry political concerns continue to weigh more heavily than emerging emergencies.

Ronneburg says the 2007 budget figures quoted above do not include a new five-year agreement signed with GEF (Global Environment Fund).

"On budget, we [now] have US$13 million for climate change mitigation, such as renewables and US$30 million for adaptation. We are discussing with many donors how we can implement adaptation, etc., in the region."

Ronneburg points out that only 25% of the new GEF funding will come through SPREP and the other 75% going to member countries.

Copyright © 2007 Islands Business International

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