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Science and policy in the South Pacific

Jon Barnett reports on a Pacific Islands conference which assessed the important links between climate science and policy for this region.

The author is a science and technology postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

The Government of the Cook Islands hosted the Pacific Islands Conference on Climate Change, Climate Variability and Sea Level Rise from April 3rd to 7th 2000. The meeting was organized by the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) in partnership with the National Tidal Facility (NTF) at Flinders University, South Australia. The conference theme was Linking Science and Policy.

The conference was designed to enable the Pacific Islands scientific and policy communities to take stock of progress, exchange information and ideas, and negotiate future directions.

To this end, it had three principal objectives:

  • to improve understanding of the science of climate change, climate variability and sea-level rise;
  • to update on the progress of various regional projects; and,
  • to develop a regional strategic framework for future action.

This latter objective was paramount as there has hitherto been insufficient scientific and institutional bases for a common regional climate change policy.

The venue for the conference was the Cook Islands National Auditorium on Rarotonga. The conference was well-attended, with over 200 people travelling to Rarotonga for the occasion. Over 80 papers and posters were presented on a broad range of subjects related to both scientific and policy aspects of climate change and sea level rise. As well as the presentation of papers and posters the conference was attended by country delegates who engaged in negotiation of the text of the framework for action.

The conference was opened by the Cook Islands Prime Minister Terepai Maoate, followed by speeches by representatives from sponsors as well as by the Australian Ambassador for the Environment Ralph Hillman.

Terepai Maoate’s speech referred to the obligations of the global community to those that are “marginalized and disadvantaged from wealth, security and knowledge,” asking “what do I say to my people when they lose their land and their homes under a rising sea? And what comfort can I give?”

In contrast, the theme of Ralph Hillman’s speech was “sound climate policy based on sound science,” arguing for a “realistic regional framework” to come out of the conference. In this Australia could be read as implying that Pacific Island Countries had thus far been less than realistic.

Ralph Hillman acknowledged that “developing countries in the Pacific and elsewhere have the right to expect major emitters of greenhouse gases to act to address greenhouse emissions growth.” This neatly avoids the deeper issue of their right to continue to exist as sovereign entities. It is because this more fundamental right is jeopardized that small islands states take climate change seriously.

These different positions on mitigation were largely subsumed for the remainder of the conference. Instead, attention was primarily directed at scientific and policy issues relating to climate change impacts and, to a lesser degree, adaptation. Within this broad focus on adaptation, the challenges of linking science and policy were explicitly and implicitly raised throughout the week.

Linking science and policy

The wisdom of the conference secretariat in setting the ‘linking science and policy’ theme was apparent to all by the end of the second ‘science’ day of the conference. After numerous plenary presentations on the technical aspects of monitoring atmospheric and oceanic variability and change, some gratuitous self-promotion, and much scientific jargon, those who were interested in policy could have been forgiven for contemplating how small was their increased understanding. The difficulty was not simply a matter of policy makers wanting definitive results, it was a function of more fundamental problems of differences in values and attitudes and of competing policy demands.

One striking feature of the presentations made at the conference was the overwhelming number of science papers presented by non-Pacific Islanders. Indeed, on the core ‘science’ day (the second day) there were thirteen papers presented and all of these were from institutions in Australia (six papers from the National Tidal Facility alone), New Zealand and the United States. Much of the data presented was gathered from expensive and high-technology systems owned and operated by metropolitan countries. This technology is way beyond the financial means of Pacific Island countries, so the data is not owned and often not accessible to or used by people in the region.

Thus, the science of the day was the science of interest to the metropolitan countries, deemed to be of relevance to Pacific Island policy makers. This was especially the case with the Ausaid-funded National Tidal Facility project. This problem further underlined the lesson of the short history of research on climate change in the Pacific, which is that only that research initiated by the region (usually through the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, SPREP) has been of strong relevance and utility to policy. An example of this is the CSIRO’s recent climate scenario work reported in Tiempo Issue 35 and the series of coastal vulnerability studies.

So, as the conference progressed, there came a crescendo of calls from Pacific Island delegates for research to be dictated by them to meet their policy needs, and to be conducted by their own countries as much as possible. A need for unrestricted access to data was also clearly and repeatedly expressed. The strong and unambiguous message was that for the purposes of good policy and capacity building, it is the Pacific Islands themselves who must control and conduct future research.

This changes the task for metropolitan donors, who are now urged not to set the terms for research but rather to respond to the needs established by the region itself in the Regional Framework developed by the conference. The challenge for donors is to facilitate and support research conducted by Pacific Islanders for Pacific Islanders, in as many of the priority areas as possible. This entails relaxing the implicit conditionalities placed on aid. It should not be forgotten, though, that the most important task for these more developed countries is to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

One of the difficulties of linking science with policy is determining the exact constitution of ‘policy’. At the conference it was clear that there were a number of dimensions to policy, and that each had somewhat different expectations from science. The ostensible focus of the conference was on national-level policies for adaptation to climate change, climate variability and sea-level rise. Many of the policy makers present were from national government agencies, and many of these people seemed to find the science sessions to be somewhat peripheral to their concerns. This was also the case for non-governmental organization representatives, whose local-level perspective was even further removed from the broad-scale and high-tech nature of the science sessions.

As well as these national and local policy demands, science must also meet the needs of regional-level agencies such as SPREP and the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC), who, while being servants of their member countries, nevertheless straddle a slightly different policy space. These organizations are mediators between the national and global dialogue on both adaptation and mitigation, and are catalysts for funding and research. Indeed, SPREP has been absolutely pivotal in nearly all climate change initiatives in the South Pacific.

The complexity of climate change policy is enhanced by its division into the two broad categories of mitigation and adaptation.

The continued need to forge progress on mitigation was emphasized at the conference in representations from Greenpeace and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS, see page 15), including Ambassadors Slade (Samoa) and Ashe (Antigua and Barbuda).

For the purposes of mitigation, science is asked to demonstrate that impacts can be attributed to anthropogenic emissions. However, certainty of this kind is some way off and so the Climate Convention and the Kyoto Protocol must maintain faith with the precautionary principle. Progress on mitigation also demands demonstration of greenhouse gas mitigation technologies, and the conference saw substantial consultation on a renewable energy project for the region.

For the purposes of adaptation, the policy need is for precise information about when, where and how Pacific Island Countries will be affected by climate change, climate variability and sea-level rise. In particular, delegates were concerned about the impacts of climate variability which many saw as being the most immediate threat to people and property in the region. Importantly, these impacts were seen to be increasing, and delegates were less concerned about the scientific and definitional question of whether these could be attributed to climate change, and more concerned with immediate action to lessen their effects.

Two important cross-cutting themes of the conference were uncertainty and capacity-building. Scientific presentations were well attuned to the problem of uncertainty, so much so that emphasis on uncertainties tended to obscure recognition of explicit findings. Policy discussions were also attuned to the problems associated with uncertainty, and a substantial corpus of no-regrets policy measures will be documented in the conference proceedings.

A clearly-identified science and policy problem was the lack of indigenous capacity to conduct research, engage in monitoring, and formulate policy. This is closely related to the control of research by donors and the tendency of these externally-derived projects to underestimate (if not ignore) the requirements to boost science and policy expertise in the region. In this sense, capacity building requires a solid commitment to developing human resources.

The regional politics of mitigation policy

To a large extent, the conference’s external/internal and science/policy tensions were inadvertent products of addressing complex problems in a multinational and mixed-development context. Indeed, a success of the conference was that these latent problems are now better understood, with some solutions proposed. There was, however, a more deliberate external/internal tension arising from Australia’s sensitivity as the major emitter of greenhouse gases in the region.

The tension was evident from the first day of the conference, if not from Ambassador Hillman’s speech, then from Australia’s negative response to an overhead showing Australia’s emissions of carbon and population relative to those of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Pacific Island Countries (these figures were reported in Tiempo Issue 33).

Australia also used the conference to further push for the inclusion of sinks activities under the Clean Development Mechanism (the CDM is established by Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol in which sink activities are not mentioned, as they explicitly are for Article 6). This has been a long-standing strategy which would enable Australia to meet its 108 per cent Kyoto ‘reduction’ target by carbon-offsetting activities in developing countries.

Australia has been targeting the region’s larger countries of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu as potential hosts of forestry sector sink projects, and in turn hoping for the support of these countries in negotiations at the Conference of Parties. The possibility of including sinks projects under the CDM is contested and it threatens the integrity of the Kyoto Protocol. Importantly, AOSIS is opposed to sinks/CDM projects. Australia’s enticement of the larger Pacific countries therefore threatens the solidarity of AOSIS.

A framework for action

A substantial and important outcome of the conference was the drafting of a Pacific Island’s Framework for Action on Climate Change, Climate Variability and Sea Level Rise, intended to be approved at the following SPREP ministerial meeting and the South Pacific Forum Leaders conference.

The extensive negotiation of the text of the Framework at the conference ensures that its provisions are based on both political and scientific consensus. The draft framework’s goal is to “catalyse action and strengthen partnerships at all levels to enable the Pacific Islands region to understand and respond to climate change, climate variability and sea level rise.”

With capacity building as a key cross-cutting theme, the draft framework indicates four priority areas for action:

  • understanding the climate system and sea- level rise;
  • understanding impacts and vulnerability;
  • response measures (policies and measures); and,
  • improving the linkages between science and policy.

The draft framework establishes means of implementation, including the expansion and consolidation of the Climate Change Country Team Approach established under the Pacific Islands Climate Change Assistance Programme (PICCAP). The framework is to be reviewed every four years. The framework is a comprehensive and well-conceived meta-policy to focus and guide all climate change-related science and policy in the region for the foreseeable future.

The Pacific Islands Conference on Climate Change, Climate Variability and Sea Level Rise achieved its principal objectives. Delegates were updated on the science of climate change in the region and the link between science and policy was intensively explored. A regional framework was negotiated at the conference. Finally, delegates were informed of the progress of various regional projects.

Among the regional projects, PICCAP stands out as being particularly successful, demonstrating to the world how capacity can be rapidly and efficiently developed to an excellent standard. Clearly, with the right kinds of support, Pacific Island countries can successfully manage their own adaptation challenges. The magnitude of these challenges, though, depends on the extent to which global emissions of greenhouse gases can be reduced – Pacific Island countries expect an enhanced and meaningful commitment from their more developed neighbours.

Further information

Jon Barnett, Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch, New Zealand. Fax: +64-3-3642002. Email:

On the Web

On the Web: Small Island States lists selected links.

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