As Jacinda Ardern heads to the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, this year’s event looms as a test of whether New Zealand is walking the talk on its Pacific Reset.

After the unfortunate breakdown of her RNZAF 757 in Melbourne last month, Jacinda Ardern may be crossing all her fingers and toes as the plane leaves New Zealand soil en route to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

But while Ardern may be heading to Tuvalu on a wing and a prayer, the situation is even more dire for those who call the small island nation home.

The country is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with crops destroyed by rising sea levels and the marine ecosystem depleted by warming waters; visiting earlier in the year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “Nowhere have I seen the heartbreaking impacts of climate change more starkly than in Tuvalu.”

Despite the tiny contribution that Pacific nations like Tuvalu make to global emissions, Oxfam New Zealand executive director Rachel Le Mesurier say they have had an outsized impact in “tackling head-on the grave injustice they’re facing”.

“I think there’s incredible courage and leadership coming from the Pacific Island nations…they’re making really bold national commitments.”

Whether the larger PIF members will show that same boldness is already under scrutiny.

Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in strategic studies at Massey University, says “heavy negotiating” is already underway in Tuvalu over the strength of a PIF statement on climate action, with Australia likely the main culprit in seeking to water it down.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already come under fire, with Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga saying his announcement of $500 million in funding for Pacific climate resilience projects was no “excuse” to avoid meaningful action on domestic emissions reductions.

New Zealand’s climate policy settings would seem more progressive than our neighbour’s, but  Le Mesurier notes the fact that our emissions are actually rising as an indication we must also “get our own house in order,” as she puts it.

“Climate change does not really care about who is moving what political pawn around the stage: fundamentally, we’re all going to be impacted and we’re seeing the Pacific impacted first.”

Part of the problem in tackling climate action is agreeing on what the theme of this year’s event, Securing our Future in the Pacific, actually means.

While PIF leaders last year signed the Boe Declaration declaring climate change “the single greatest threat” to the security of the Pacific, some Western nations appear to have focused more closely on the security implications of China’s growing influence and activity in the region.

The US delegation to Tuvalu is being led by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, in what Powles says is a signal of both increased American prioritisation of the Pacific and an acknowledgement of China stepping up its own engagement.

But too much focus on the Great Power rivalry, and not enough on the environmental issues literally on the Pacific’s doorstep, may be damaging.

“Climate change does not really care about who is moving what political pawn around the stage: fundamentally, we’re all going to be impacted and we’re seeing the Pacific impacted first,” Le Mesurier says.

Testing the reset

Almost 18 months into New Zealand’s “Pacific Reset” and Winston Peters’ pledge to treat the region as an equal, the Government’s recalibration – as well as Australia’s “Pacific Step-Up” – will be under the microscope.

Le Mesurier sees this year’s PIF as a test of New Zealand’s credibility, with Oxfam calling on the Government to commit US$30 million to the UN-backed Green Climate Fund in October.

Powles agrees that the event will offer a measure of the Western countries’ commitment to changing their approach.

All eyes will be on the Chinese delegation and how it is received after last year’s walk-out, while renewed speculation about a Chinese military base in the Pacific suggests the topic is still at the front of American and Australian minds.

Will geopolitical machinations trump more localised climate change concerns, will the latter win out, or can the two competing narratives peacefully co-exist?

As Powles says: “This is crunch point – this is where the rubber hits the road.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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