Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We chose the theme “Stewardship for Healthy Oceans & Healthy Nations” for this meeting for a very good reason, and I don’t believe I need to spend time convincing anyone in this room why this theme is timely and important. Our culture, our lives, and our very existence are defined by the Pacific Ocean.
We feel the pain of global warming here. In Fiji, we have accelerated plans to relocate some forty coastal villages to higher ground. And it was recently reported that the disappearance of five islands, right here in the Solomons, is directly linked to rising sea levels and erosion caused by climate change.
At the beginning of this year, I saw the devastating effects of our increasingly dangerous oceans first hand in Fiji —and there is no other way to describe it—by Tropical Cyclone Winston. We were nearly helpless as the sea swallowed villages and eroded shorelines at a pace unprecedented in modern times. A number of our people who died during this drastic cyclone were simply swept out to sea. Others were struck by debris flying at 200 kilometres per hour, while many thousands were left homeless by winds and tidal surge. And it was a preview of one possible future — a glimpse of our children’s fate if we are not vigorous in our efforts to address fast-deteriorating climate conditions in our Pacific Island Nations.
Winston was also a unique emotional experience for us, because it initially passed Fiji by. But our relief at being bypassed was soon overtaken by the need to prepare again, because Winston did the unthinkable: It made a 180-degree turn and seemed to be headed right for the most populous areas of Fiji. Everyone in this room shares one experience when a tropical cyclone is forming in the Pacific: We pray that it will pass us by, and then we think, “But if not here, then where?” We certainly don’t wish it on our neighbours, but we know that a storm is likely to find landfall somewhere. So we pray some more.
As Winston was forming, I could not help thinking of the 6,000 people in the Philippines who lost their lives in Haiyan, or of the terrible destruction that Pam caused in Vanuatu just last year.
We live the consequences of global warming here constantly—with each hurricane season as we brace ourselves for the next great storm, each winter that produces insufficient rain, and each high tide that reaches farther inland than ever before.
Still, we also know that this is a global problem—it is global warming, after all—and that there is a larger and very important reality that we can recognise when we take a step back. And that is that water covers two-thirds of the earth’s surface, and that planet Earth really has one single ocean that connects all land areas, and all people.
Just as individual species are not necessarily limited to one ocean, human activity in one ocean can have repercussions many thousands of miles away. While we are focused on our home in the Pacific, as we should be, we also know that what we do can affect life off the coast of West Africa, and what happens north of Canada or east of Tierra del Fuego in South America can play out in positive or negative ways in our part of the world.
Our Pacific Ocean is hugely important, even in that context. It is the largest single geographic feature of our planet. It takes up roughly half of the Earth’s sea surface and more than a third of the Earth’s total surface. Irrespective of where people live on this earth, the Pacific touches their lives. Goods flow across the Pacific among the world’s greatest economies. Changes in Pacific currents cause searing drought in some areas and destructive rains in others—with serious consequences for food security, economic growth and even the safety of human life. And fish and mammal species migrate to and from the Pacific, so the destruction of coral reefs and mangroves here, and changes in our ocean temperatures, can change ecosystems in India, Africa or the Americas.
Our Pacific Ocean contains complex ecosystems and supports a vast range of economic activities–from subsistence and commercial coastal fisheries and industrial offshore fisheries, to coastal and marine tourism, to defence, shipping and mining, to marine research and education.
This makes us uniquely vulnerable to collective damage from the individual behaviour of billions of people. All this human activity—and all human dependence on the ocean—takes its toll. Scientific evidence shows that our oceans—which are really the earth’s circulatory system—are in danger from anthropogenic threats—threats caused directly or indirectly by human activity, threats such as destructive fishing practices, unsustainable resource use, pollution, and changes in water temperature that destroy some species and cause others to migrate to colder or warmer waters. That is why it will take concerted action—and unprecedented cooperation—between governments and the private sector to change behaviours.
Unsustainable fishing can be stopped, at the artisan and industrial levels, if governments do their job enforcing laws and raise the consciousness of their citizens, and if the fishing industry commits to educate its own members and ensure that all members adopt responsible practices. We Pacific islanders can do our part in making our artisan fishermen aware of the need to nurture and sustain marine life. And we find that our fishermen are receptive to the message. They want to live in harmony with the ocean.
But we need the committed and assertive cooperation of the great fishing nations as well. They must control their voracious factory ships and increase the legal and financial risks to ship captains and fishing companies who would sweep the seas indiscriminately until they became a watery wasteland, devoid of life.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Hundreds of millions of people live along the shores of the Pacific or along rivers that flow into the Pacific. And this is why sustainable practices on land are as important to the life of the ocean as sustainable practices at sea. We cannot talk about stewardship of the oceans unless we talk about our commitment to reform the way we live on dry land. Let me give you some other examples.
First, there is rubbish, a problem that is sometimes overlooked because of the enormous challenge posed by global warming. But it is real and it is solvable. We humans produce millions of tonnes of rubbish, and much of it ends up in the oceans.
In May of this year, 13 sperm whales washed up on the German coast. Sperm whales are not normally found in the North Sea, yet this was just the latest whale stranding there this year. Scientists think human activity—the sounds of ships’ engines, sonar and other technology—may be confusing whales and causing strandings and deviations from their normal migration routes. In fact, more than 30 sperm whales have been found beached since the start of the year in the U.K., the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and Germany. But these German whales got everyone’s attention, because researchers found that several of them had huge amounts of plastic waste in their stomachs. One had swallowed a nearly 13-meter-long shrimp fishing net, a plastic car engine cover, and a plastic bucket, among other debris.
In 2013, sperm whales that washed up in the Netherlands and Spain were each found to have swallowed more than 17 kilos of plastic waste. One of the whales had swallowed 56 different plastic items. In 2010, a gray whale died after stranding itself near Seattle, in the United States. It was found to have swallowed more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, surgical gloves, plastic pieces, duct tape, and more.
These whales may be our marine version of the canary in the coal mine, warning us of danger. A recent study by researchers from Spain and Australia found that at least 88 percent of Earth’s ocean surface is polluted with plastic debris. This affects marine life, climate, food chains, and much more.
We walk along our beautiful island beaches, and we see the rubbish. We all do. And it makes us sick. But what is far more disturbing is that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg, and we are reacting mostly to the unsightliness of it all. The real consequences of all this rubbish—particularly the plastic—are far more dire. This is not just a problem of aesthetics. And the solution lies not just in cleaning up, but in sustainable practises such as recycling, elimination of plastics and other persistent materials wherever possible, and building social consciousness around the need to end littering.
Despite the real and growing challenges facing our ocean, practical and effective solutions exist at every level of our societies. Solutions to some problems seem within reach, while other problems are not as straightforward and are extremely complex, like ocean acidification.
Acidification is caused by the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide. Oceans have absorbed about half the carbon dioxide produced by humans since the dawn of the industrial revolution, and this actually slowed the rate of global warming for a while. But the bill has come due: Scientists now know that all this CO2 that the seas have taken in has changed water chemistry, which in turn causes changes in the life cycles of many marine organisms. It inhibits shell growth in crustaceans and molluscs, and there is strong suspicion that it causes reproductive disorders in some fish.
Then there is the destruction of coral reefs, which is a matter of importance to us. There is great concern today about the shrinking of the Great Barrier Reef, almost certainly due in part to ocean warming, but perhaps also in part to the effects of agricultural and waste runoff that has led to an overpopulation of the crown-of-thorns sea star, which feeds on coral.
The fact is that nutrient and chemical pollution coming into the oceans from rivers is also making suitable coral habitat very scarce. And runoff is not nearly as difficult to control as CO2. So here is an area where something can be done fairly soon, not just in Australia, but everywhere—if we have the political will to do it. Coral reefs are naturally very resilient, but resiliency only goes so far, and we may be reaching the breaking point.
At the global level, because there is only one interconnected and interdependent ocean, pollution or unsustainable fishing in one quarter of the ocean matters even to those of us living thousands of miles away. And while the acidity of ocean water may vary slightly from one place to another, rising levels of ocean acidification threaten ocean ecology everywhere. The ocean performs the critical role of cycling water, carbon, and nutrients throughout our planet. Millions of people depend on it for their livelihoods.
This diversity reflects the central theme of this summit, that the solutions to the challenges threatening our ocean require commitments and contributions from everyone.
There is a role for governments, and we expect some impressive ideas and new initiatives to emerge here over the next two days. But there are equally important roles for civil society, the private sector’s philanthropic organisations and individuals, and most importantly, for collaboration among all these groups. Collective action is critical. And collective action can change individual attitudes and individual behaviour.
Most of us here have begun that process. We have established green growth programmes because we see sustainable growth as our only choice for the future. And we have the chance to chart our own course, a course that avoids the mistakes so many others have made. That is our future—a future of sustainable growth that is in harmony with our environment. The future belongs to those who can master this delicate balance. It belongs to those who can be bold and confident, even if we are not the most powerful nations on earth. And it belongs to those who can lead by example, by moral authority, and by the very strength of their ideas. We have the power to realise that future. Right here. Right now. But only if we rise to this moment.
Over the next two days, we will examine the challenges we face, the way they have impacted our communities within our region and establish strategies that we can pursue collectively.
And as I mentioned earlier, we will maintain this momentum in Fiji from 5th to 9th June 2017, when Fiji co-hosts, with Sweden, the Global Oceans and Sea Summit. This will be another forum for setting global commitments that can save the life of our global ocean, and we Pacific islanders must have a very loud and responsible voice at that meeting. The work we will have done so far, the commitments we have made, and the selflessness with which we have taken on this challenge in our corner of the world give us the moral authority to speak out loud and clear and to claim our rightful leadership role in this environmental crusade.
And when we speak out again, we will continue to assist on adequate financing for mitigation and adaptive measures. We will continue to hold the industrial nations’ and the industrialising nations’ feet to the fire to drastically reduce their carbon emissions. And we will continue to insist on ambitious goals for CO2 reductions.
Why will we continue to insist on reductions that so many experts and political leaders say are impossible? Because no great thing was ever accomplished by setting timid goals. No great thing was ever accomplished by accepting one’s own weakness, not by an individual or a nation. And no great thing was ever accomplished without courage and great effort.
Any ambition that is truly worthwhile will be hard. We know that arresting climate change will be hard. It will be hard because it is the most valuable thing we can work for in today’s world. So we say no. We do not accept timid goals or half-way measures. We want it all. We cannot look at our children and tell them that ensuring their future was just too hard. And we think all the people and all the creatures on this planet deserve no less.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Once again, let me thank the government of Solomon Islands for hosting this event, and for this opportunity to put the ocean at the centre of our discussions in these two days. The future is indeed ours.
Thank you very much. Vinaka vakalevu. Hamamas tumas.