Pacific leaders are gathering in the Cook Islands for the annual Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Retreat.

Climate change, always a high priority for Pacific countries, will be the main theme of the gathering, just weeks before the global community descends on Dubai for the major COP28 climate summit. 

Six island nations that endorsed the Port Vila Call for a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific earlier this year – Tonga, Fiji, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu – are likely to push for wider adoption of the statement.

That statement asks the forum to issue a declaration supporting a ban on fossil fuels in the region, and the negotiation of a global treaty for non-proliferation of fossil fuels. It pushes countries to join the Beyond Oil and Gas alliance of nations that have partly or fully halted fossil fuel exploration.

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New Zealand has yet to sign on to the call, although there are aspects it supports such as advocating for the end of fossil fuel subsidies and joining the anti-exploration alliance. New Zealand is a partial member of Beyond Oil and Gas because the Labour Government banned offshore oil and gas exploration. If the incoming government reinstates that exploration, as National has pledged to do, New Zealand is likely to be kicked out of the group.

Getting precise answers out of New Zealand delegates may be difficult at the summit, however, because representatives of both the outgoing and incoming governments are attending but have limited ability to make commitments.

Carmel Sepuloni, the Deputy Prime Minister and Associate Foreign Affairs Minister with responsibility for the Pacific, were to attend the special, overnight leaders retreat where officials and other delegates are excluded. National’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee is attending the summit but not the retreat.

Sepuloni can only make statements in consultation with a representative from National and is expected to be in close contact with Brownlee, including holding joint appearances and meetings with foreign leaders like Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown. But Brownlee is somewhat hamstrung on the finer details of policy because the incoming government has yet to form and therefore has yet to take a position on issues which go beyond the usual areas of cross-partisan agreement on foreign affairs.

It may well be Australia that ends up bearing the brunt of the pressure from Pacific Island nations, both because of the lack of a serious plan for fossil fuel phase-out across the Tasman and because of the powerlessness of New Zealand’s representatives.

Alongside the Port Vila call, issues around loss and damage – effectively, reparations from wealthy emitters to poor countries which have experienced the worst climate impacts thus far – are likely to arise. At the COP27 climate summit in Cairo last year, New Zealand was one of a handful of countries to kickstart a global conversation on loss and damage by announcing a token $20 million to help countries recover from climate-related disasters.

The formal agenda for the summit includes the endorsement of an implementation plan for the Pacific Forum’s 2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent – a long-term approach to working together as a region.

“Aotearoa New Zealand strongly supports the implementation of the Strategy, which is the collective roadmap to achieve the common goals of peace, security, and prosperity in, and for, the Pacific,” Sepuloni says.

The United States is expected to make its presence felt at the Pacific Islands Forum a year after President Joe Biden held America’s first Pacific Islands Summit in Washington, D.C.

The American delegation will include senior officials from the State Department, the National Security Council, the Coast Guard and other agencies and will be headed by the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

The fact that Thomas-Greenfield is still attending despite the ongoing deliberations at the United Nations about the Israel-Hamas war is intended to show the strength of the US commitment to the Pacific. Not only is she the face of the US at the United Nations, but she’s also a member of Biden’s Cabinet.

“I think we’re expected to have a pretty robust discussion of environmental issues and climate crisis across the board, and we know that that’s going to be a topic that comes up in all of our conversations,” a senior US administration official told reporters on a background briefing on Tuesday.

“We also recognise that the impacts of the climate crisis are already here and being felt, and that’s why the United States is continuing to work with Pacific Island countries and other vulnerable countries around the world to build resilience to extreme weather events and other climate-related impacts, such as sea level rise. There’s a number of investments that we’ll have a chance to talk more about, including on capacity building, on disaster risk reduction, and on building toward an ambitious set of climate meetings that will be happening later in the year.”

Also on the agenda at the Pacific Islands Forum is the confirmation of the group’s next secretary-general. After Micronesian states threatened to quit the forum in 2021 when their candidate for the top job was voted down in favour of former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, they were effectively promised the next pick.

Earlier this year, they presented former Nauru President Baron Waqa, a controversial figure who faces allegation of bribery dating back to 2009 and who deported the country’s top judge while in power. While other members of the forum, including Australia and New Zealand, weren’t ecstatic, they accepted the selection in order to keep the forum united.

Waqa is due to be formally confirmed this week and will take on the role of secretary-general when Puna steps down in the middle of 2024. However, since the pick was announced in February, some Pacific leaders have expressed second thoughts, including the then-President of the Federated States of Micronesia and the current President of Palau.

On arrival in Rarotonga on Monday local time, Waqa told reporters he was confident he would be confirmed. “It’s already been decided,” he said.

Finally, as with most other diplomatic summits in the coming weeks, the Israel-Hamas war is likely to come up, although it isn’t on the official agenda.

New Zealand and the Solomon Islands were the only forum members to vote in support of a United Nations resolution calling for a humanitarian truce in late October. Five members abstained and six voted against – making up nearly half of the 14 countries which opposed the vote.

The resolution did not condemn Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, prompting New Zealand’s representative to the United Nations to say she was “disappointed” in the wording but that it was important to support humanitarian appeals for civilians in the region.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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