The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast

What are the issues threatening oceans in the Pacific? With Dame Meg Taylor DBE

April 12, 2022 Economy Land & Climate Insight Team
The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast
What are the issues threatening oceans in the Pacific? With Dame Meg Taylor DBE
Show Notes Transcript

The day before 80 countries meet in Palau to discuss ocean governance, Bertie talked to Dame Meg Taylor DBE about the changes the Pacific Elders' Voice are campaigning for, including pollution of plastics and nuclear waste, illegal and unsustainable fishing, and loss and damage.

Pacific Elders' Voice is a group of diplomats, academics, and creatives who work together to platform issues important to the future of the Pacific Islands. Meg Taylor's distinguished career includes serving as the Ambassador of Papua New Guinea to the United States, Mexico and Canada (1989-1994), Vice President of the International Finance Corporation (1999-2014), and most recently, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum (2014-2021). She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2002.

Further Reading

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

Hello, and welcome to the Economy, Land and Climate Podcast. My name is Bertie Harrison-Broninski. I'm an assistant editor here at ELCI, and today I have the privilege of talking to Dame Meg Taylor, whose distinguished career includes serving as Ambassador of Papua New Guinea to the United States, Mexico and Canada, Vice President of the International Finance Corporation, and most recently, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. She is speaking today on behalf of a group called Pacific Elders' Voice, and we are going to be discussing issues raised in the recent Statement on Oceans, which was published ahead of the Our Oceans conference, which begins on the 13th of April.

Dame Meg Taylor:

People in the United States, don't know about this. People in Europe don't know about this. Everybody thinks that everybody in the Pacific just has this idyllic life, living on atolls and islands, and that all will be well, well things are not well in the Pacific.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

I began by asking Dame Meg to explain a little bit about Pacific Elders' Voice.

Dame Meg Taylor:

The Pacific Elders Voice is a group of senior people from the Pacific, from the Northern Pacific, from the South Pacific and from the Western Pacific. We convened as a group late last year. And it's made up of former presidents and prime ministers and senior officials. Now we have poets and writers, we hope to expand this further. But it's really to provide the wisdom that we can to guide our region, and particularly to link with young people in our region around issues that are very important to us as Pacific peoples.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

And could you say a little about the Our Oceans conference? What's on the negotiation table? And what is its significance?

Dame Meg Taylor:

Yeah, so the seventh Oceans conference will be held in Palau, in the Northern Pacific, 13th and 14th of April, and we're very pleased it will be hosted in Palau. A lot of focus will be on increasing maritime reserves, so that we have more of our ocean space protected. I think that's a very important part of this. And of course, our concerns will be on protection of our world's oceans. And this conference will be addressing these issues, I understand that 80 countries will be represented. And senior people from the US administration, Senator John Kerry will also be there. But I think the most important thing is that we want young people in the Pacific to be taking a greater involvement in this conference so that as we move forward, the issues about the importance of the ocean, particularly in relation to climate change is going to be addressed. I want to say one thing that is really important at the outset is that the Pacific Ocean for Indigenous peoples of the Pacific is not just a body of water. The ocean represents the life force of all Pacific Islands people. And we hope that the our oceans conference will truly acknowledge this truth, and set in train measures to ensure that the Pacific Ocean is appropriately protected for current and future generations. We have people on larger islands, like the one that I'm on Papa New Guinea, with mountains that go up to 15,000 feet, and then you are surrounded by most beautiful coral in the world. And there are many, many islands. And then you have our islands that are atolls, long, sandy atolls, in Micronesia, and in parts of Polynesia. And all these places are really important in stories of the beginnings of our populations. And many of them, of course, particularly for those in the lowlands, and small islands, all starts with the sea. So it is not just about an ocean that is traversed by the ships carrying cargo to Southeast Asia. It is about who people are in the Pacific. And it's very, very profound.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

I wanted to begin by asking you about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recent round of reports. Were there any significant findings in the sixth assessment reports? And do you think they've received enough political attention?

Dame Meg Taylor:

I think we have so many conversations about climate, so many conversations about oceans, and do we see the world changing its behaviour? No, no. And this report, the recent IPCC report, the six assessment report, notes that small islands, tropical corals are at high risk from climate change. This is a real issue for us in the Pacific. And it addresses the ocean warming and acidification, which is due to the increased carbon dioxide level. So this is the cause of tremendous impact on coral bleaching. And that, of course, will have impact on our fishstock. Fishstock for survival of people, but also for the food that we export to the markets of Europe, one of the tuna that people in Europe consume comes from the Pacific. And if this is affected, it means that the survival of people around the world is going to be impacted. We've got to pay attention to the IPCC reports, and countries need to respond to them. And, you know, I think for us in the Pacific, our concern is that we don't see enough attention and reaction to issues that are raised by IPCC, we'd know that temperatures will really continue to climb, and the impact that was gonna have on all of us were particularly for low lying atolls, and we're seeing it now with the loss of parts of our islands, and the impact is having on communities that live very close to the ocean. And their source of food is their way of life. I don't want to be I don't want to despair. I want to keep hoping, because I want to secure the future for our younger generation. But I think we can't do it alone. We're not the ones that cause the damage. The damage is really caused by the powerful in large economies. Nothing much has been done.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

And it's been or it is becoming quite a big year for kind of ocean diplomacy, right? And this particular conference follows just a few weeks after the intergovernmental conference on marine biodiversity last month, which basically failed to secure a treaty to protect biodiversity in international waters. I wondered if you wanted to say anything about that, what's the significance of that treaty for the Pacific? Could the our oceans conference resolve kind of any of the ongoing difficulties in getting that treaty signed?

Dame Meg Taylor:

The Pacific Elders expressed our disappointment that the fourth session of the intergovernmental conference on marine biodiversity beyond the limits of national jurisdiction was not concluded at a recent meeting in New York. And the importance of protecting marine biodiversity beyond the limits of national jurisdiction can't be overstated. And we draw particular attention to the need to define effective environmental impact assessment procedures, on the high seas. And we do call on all nations involved in these negotiations to resolve their differences, our missions in New York, were very, very actively involved in these negotiations. We have very, very knowledgeable, particularly young people who worked on this and made it a life commitment in their careers, because they believe that this is really important. But I think there was an inevitability at one point where I felt that we saw that bigger powers are not going to agree to this. But we want to see the differences resolved, because it's for all of us to find a way forward. And to conclude new agreements on this.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

The kind of other big environmental treaty around oceans this year, I think is around controlling plastic pollution. And I know the Pacific Elders Voice have spoken about ghost gear and the issues with kind of pollution from fishing boats. I wondered if you had anything more to kind of say about that? I know, they mentioned the need for a kind of monitoring, what would that monitoring look like? And are there any particular nations responsible for this? Or is this just a totally international global problem?

Dame Meg Taylor:

The issue of plastic pollution, and particularly from discarded fishing gear known as ghost gear in the Pacific waters, is the responsibility of everybody, but it's particularly the responsibility of the big fishing nations, that fish in our waters. The Pacific countries don't have the capacity to manage all this. We in our own societies have to do that. And I have to say, I don't think the Pacific has a good track record on how we manage plastics in our home and in our own communities in terms of recycling, or even taking really tough stances, similar to some of the countries in Africa have done to just say, we're not having any plastics, and that's what we should be doing. But the great issue for the Pacific is that our dependency on the Pacific Ocean for our livelihoods, and with the ghost gear waste, the countries that have fishing vessels in the Pacific, have got to take far more responsibility. But who is going to monitor this and who is going to be the one that's going to report? And I think that's going to take a much greater effort than just the Pacific calling for it. It's going to require an international agency to be able to continue to monitor this, keep control of it.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

In terms of monitoring, does that mean kind of checking every boat? Or is this a what does monitoring really look like?

Dame Meg Taylor:

I'm not at sea. So I don't know how that will happen. But I do know that our foreign fisheries agency, which belongs to the Pacific, in the Solomon Islands, they work very closely with the vessels and companies that have ships and countries that have ships that go out into the region. And I think, I would hope that their views are sought on how we're going to find a way to monitor this for the Pacific.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

There's this line as well about overfishing and irregular or illegal unreported and unregulated fishing in the Pacific region. I was interested to know, are there particular nations that are causing this problem? Is this the fault of particular industries, particular kind of supply chains of fish, and what steps need to be taken to regulate and control this?

Dame Meg Taylor:

The concerns that we have about overfishing, or irregular, unreported, and unregulated (IUU as it is known in the region). It's not just one nation, we have several who just are not abiding by rules of fishing within our territorial waters, as well as fishing in high seas. We have organisations within the Pacific that do keep track of all this. And we have within the Pacific, we've got two distinct organisations. One looks at regional fisheries, and the supervision of all this comes through the foreign fisheries agency in Solomon Islands. This issue is not new. Here we are in 2021. And we are still discussing this issue. Because I think the agreements that we've set up with fishing fleets, is just not tough enough. The issue's around accountability. And of course, the issue's about monitoring, about what's going on. I think it's a very, very tough job for anybody. And we do have very good support from the Pacific, from Australia and New Zealand particularly, in terms of satellite, and aircraft surveillance with our officials. In terms of IUU, there are nations that enter our waters, with total disregard. Very hard for small countries to come up against this kind of an onslaught of a fishing vessel. I think everybody just looks to the Northern Pacific and thinks, oh, this is coming from Southeast Asia. And they are. But I think whoever else comes into the region has to also be, you know, much more responsible in the way they come in and they're licensed to the countries in the Pacific rather than just coming in as illegal fishing, like a lot of this illegal fishing that goes on.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

There was one topic that was very prominent in the Pacific Elders' Voice statement. And it's one that I think many people in Western Europe, where I'm based are not really aware of. That's the ongoing pollution of oceans with nuclear waste. The Elders' statement specifically mentions Fukushima in Japan, and Enewetak in the Marshall Islands, which is home to the Runit Dome, a half century old facility of nuclear waste from the USA. What's the scale of the problem with nuclear pollution of Pacific Oceans and what needs to be done about it?

Dame Meg Taylor:

About two years ago, we read in The Economist that The Government of Japan was going to dump into the Pacific Ocean 1.2 million tons of water that had been contaminated by radioactive material. And this is very interesting, because Japan has a very close relationship with countries all over the Pacific. Yet we were never advised by the Japanese government, although I was told that they had notified our independent states that they had diplomatic relations with. 1.2 trillion tons of water that has been contaminated into the Pacific has possibilities that we don't know; contamination of our fishstock, contamination of our islands, and, of course, contamination of our foodstock. And if you look at currents that move from Japan, they move south towards the Micronesian islands and then further south into the Pacific. This has been raised with Japan. It's been suggested by the current secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum that if the water is so good, then they should put it into the lakes in Japan, we don't want it in the Pacific Ocean. You know, everything is just dumped in the Pacific. If it's not the plastics from all the countries that surround the Pacific, now you've got water waste, radioactive water waste, and yes, Japan has said that it has been treated. And if it's so clean, then it should be put into the beautiful lakes in Japan, and that can enrich their life, but not ours. Then there's this issue of Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands. It's on Enewetak Atoll. And this dome, I understand, has radioactive material that was deposited there after the Second World War. I've been to the Marshals several times, Marshall Islands several times, I've met with young people who are activists who have put their own lives at risk and sailed there, photographed and videoed what is going on there to share with the rest of us in the Pacific. There are concerns that there appears to be leaking radioactive material now, although the United States says that they send supervision missions there to make sure that there is no leakages. But this is contrary to what we hear from environmentalists who have been there who have assured us that there are cracks in the dome. This, again, has impact on the lives of people in the Pacific, also has impact on our seafood, on our fisheries, etc. And the United States has to step up and take responsibility for this. It's such a tragedy, that here we are in the 21st century and you still have people whose lives have just been totally impacted and many people's lives destroyed radioactive testing bombs in Bikini Atoll. Now, the concerns about a leaking dome. So these issues the Elders are raising because some of our senior people, they've lived through all this. And when they pass on, the younger generation has to continue to be active to hold powerful countries responsible for what they have done to peoples in the Pacific. And people in the United States don't know about this. People in Europe don't know about this. Everybody thinks that everybody in the Pacific just has this idyllic life, living on atolls and islands. And that all will be well, well, things are not well in the Pacific. It's the 21st century, we've got climate change right on our doorsteps. We're living through it now. And we still got the issues around arrange nuclear power, nuclear waste, and what's being done with it.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

I think it's quite prescient, while a lot of European nations are starting to announce they're going to do more nuclear because of the gas crisis with Russia, as well as the fact that I've read that the Runit Dome leakage is only going to get more and more risky as oceans level ocean levels rise. So I think there's a kind of warning there perhaps about nuclear waste with changing climate conditions and the risks of that.

Dame Meg Taylor:

It's really scary when you watch the video with the woman who sailed there with the young fellow from Hawaii, and they did a video on it. People in the Pacific don't understand it. This is what really worries me about it. All these superpowers. And now, with the increasing influence of China in the region, everybody wants to be our best friend. But I just wanted to touch on. I think one of the other final issues is about the proposals for deep seabed mining in the Pacific. Of course, as former presidents, prime ministers and senior officials, we understand the issue of sovereignty of nations to make their own decisions. And our concern as Elders is to raise the issue about making sure that we have the science in place that we know what the impact is going to be. And secondly, that we have regulatory frameworks for our countries to be able to manage mining, seabed mining. There is a lot of speculation at the moment about how how all this will proceed. You can't apply mining codes that are for mines on terrestrial, on land, then just apply it to the sea. The implications are much more different in terms of what we know about ocean currents, and what we don't know about the impact on the biodiversity of the oceans and what that's going to mean for us. We need to have good sound advice on that. And we need that to be in place so that the decisions that are made, that they are made with all the information and working within the regulatory frameworks, so the people of the Pacific benefit from whatever mining that there is and not just further speculation in mining, for large corporations.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

The only thing we haven't covered is kind of aid and loss and damage. Would you like to quickly say anything about that, before we go?

Dame Meg Taylor:

Many of our, particularly our small, small island states in the Pacific have really led the charge on loss and damage under the Paris Agreement, there just seems to be a constant over the past few years, that have been dismissed or not taken, not a lot of attention paid to it but COP26, there was progress. There was progress on the loss and damage issue. But, you know, all this has to be implemented and resources have to go to support the issues that were raised under the negotiations at the various COPs. The issues still in the Pacific, it doesn't seem to have changed that much. And I'm just looking at my own country. But I think the smaller island states are really, they're really cocking it right in the forefront of this. Every day, and every night, it's just getting harder and harder for them. The biggest issue for us in the Pacific is to secure our maritime boundaries. So that we know that our, the limits of our oceans, what we're responsible for in terms of our member states, the sovereignty over that. And then, over time, making sure that all of us have registered with the UN what our boundaries are. And as oceans rise, that space is protected for the future. The future generations if comes to a point where our peoples have to move, that they still have sovereignty over those ocean spaces.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

My thanks to Dame Meg Taylor, for coming on the show. If you want to hear more from Pacific Elders' Voice, we'll provide links in the description. And if you'd like to read ELCI's articles, as well as listening to our podcasts, you can visit www.elc-insight.org. If you enjoyed this episode, please follow or subscribe on your favorite podcast platform, and we'll have more interviews with climate experts very soon. Thanks for listening!