Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has chosen a group of tropical islands threatened by climate change as a steppingstone onto the international stage.
Today Zinke will become the first Republican Cabinet official to represent the United States at the Pacific Islands Forum, whose 18 members include some of the most vulnerable places to rising seas, dying coral reefs and stronger storms.
Zinke's trip will focus on military and trade issues, according to the Interior Department. It comes at a time when the United States is trying to counterbalance threats from China and North Korea.
Those were also concerns for the Obama administration, which sent emissaries to the forum such as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Both of them touted climate aid as a symbol of American power.
"From high rates of sea-level rise to increased frequency of droughts and intensity of storms, the Pacific islands are at the tip of the spear," Jewell said in 2013, devoting about half her remarks to climate change and to announcing millions of dollars in adaptation grants.
The problems have grown since then among the island territories under Interior's responsibility. But Zinke — who has shrugged off climate's role in wildfires, ecosystem degradation and ocean warming — avoided mentioning it in his pre-trip statements (Climatewire, Aug. 17; Climatewire, Jan. 8; Climatewire, April 23).
That might change when Zinke meets Pacific islanders.
"He will hear the stories of those who are experiencing [climate change's] devastating impacts firsthand," said Ngedikes Olai Uludong, Palau's permanent representative to the United States and its ambassador for climate change.
Still, the U.S. climate team, and its international counterparts, will be elsewhere. This week's U.N. climate talks in Bangkok mean Zinke will likely focus on areas of consensus, such as trade and aid opportunities, rather than climate change — which could prove a wedge issue for additional member nations like Australia.
Here's a taste of what Zinke might experience during his Pacific tour.
Nauru, a small coral atoll in Micronesia, is the forum's host country this year.
Nauru's economy has long depended on strip-mining phosphates — an environmentally damaging practice that has turned 90 percent of the island's interior into a "wasteland," cut into freshwater supplies and clustered the population around the still-fertile shoreline, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Climate change threatens to exacerbate those problems while creating new ones. Nauru's leadership has warned that sea-level rise could drive massive displacement.
"Relocation is a threat. It is imminent," Marlene Moses, Nauru's U.N. ambassador, said when the country chaired the Alliance of Small Island States, according to Reuters.
Refugees and Nauru have been closely linked for a different reason: The island hosts an offshore Australian detention facility, the Nauru Regional Processing Centre. It houses refugees in conditions that "have increasingly eroded the human rights of migrants," according to a U.N. report released last year. Children are kept in conditions similar to military custody, families have been separated, and a U.N. investigator wrote that "the system cannot be salvaged."
Ahead of the summit, Nauru's government has dismantled some of the detention camps to move them farther away from foreign leaders, according to The Guardian.
Papua New Guinea
This will be a post-forum destination for the delegation, which also includes the State Department, Defense Department, Coast Guard and U.S. Agency for International Development.
Papua New Guinea is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, accounting for 25 percent of all Pacific natural disasters between 1950 and 2008, according to the U.N. Development Programme.
Climate change promises to worsen the situation by making El Niño heat more extreme, making the coasts more dangerous for the half-million people living near the sea and threatening already-fragile infrastructure.
"The islands are getting smaller and smaller, and people have to move homes," Roman Catholic Cardinal John Ribat of Papua New Guinea told E&E News earlier this year, when he came to Capitol Hill to lobby for climate action (Climatewire, March 14).
The delegation is scheduled to stop here.
The sea around Guam has already risen 4 inches since 1993, and the water surrounding the U.S. territory could rise up to 3 feet more through the end of the century, according to EPA estimates.
That data have been criticized by Interior officials who sought to downplay climate change (Climatewire, March 8).
Internal documents showed that Indur Goklany, a career staffer and climate doubter who got a boost under the Trump administration, outlined alternative interpretations of sea-level rise data to Doug Domenech, a member of President Trump's transition team at Interior who is now the department's top official for island territories. The forum delegation will include Domenech.
Reef degradation, rising seas and stronger storms could affect American military bases on Guam. An imminent threat is contaminated fresh water. Guam closed several wells last year, and experts say the problem could begin to affect military operations, USA Today reported earlier this year.
The delegation is also scheduled to stop here.
American Samoa's representative in Congress, Del. Amata Coleman Radewagen (R), is a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus.
The leader of the nearby nation of Samoa last week blasted leaders of the United States, China and India for inflicting climate disasters that pose the "single greatest threat to the livelihood, security and well-being [of] peoples of the Pacific."
"Any leader of those countries who believes that there is no climate change, I think he ought to be taken to mental confinement," said Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. "He is utter[ly] stupid, and I say the same thing for any leader here who says there is no climate change."
Reporter Jean Chemnick contributed.
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