At least one Pacific nation wants funding to help with climate change resiliency as the U.S. renegotiates three critical security treaties ahead of a looming deadline next year.

The chief negotiator representing the Federated States of Micronesia said that mitigating climate change has become a rising priority for the country made up of more than 600 islands spread across over 1,600 miles in the Pacific Ocean, where warming seas and rising sea levels are threatening traditional ways of life.

“It is becoming a security issue,” the chief negotiator Leo Falcam, Jr., said of climate change.

The Pacific nation’s breadth gives it one of the largest exclusive economic zones in the world, claiming more than 1 million square miles of surrounding ocean.

Building infrastructure that can withstand storms that are expected to worsen due to global warming is important, Falcam said. Pictured here is Paata Weno, Chuuk, after a storm in April 2015. U.S. Embassy/2015

That ownership is one reason why the U.S. has been keen to extend the financial aspects of its treaty with the country, which also gives the U.S. military strategic denial rights over the nation’s surrounding waters, creating a significant buffer against potential adversaries in Asia.

The treaty with Micronesia is just one of three that the U.S. has with Pacific nations known as the compacts of free association that provide these strategic denial rights. All three are in the midst of renegotiations because their economic provisions are on the verge of expiring. The deadline for Micronesia and the Marshall Islands is next year, while Palau’s is in 2024.

Along with Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, the compact nations and their surrounding waters compose an area comparable to the size of all 48 contiguous U.S. states. Rising tensions between the U.S. and China as well as North Korea’s increasing pace of ballistic missile tests have underscored the value of U.S. control over this massive segment of the Pacific region.

But the United States hasn’t held any formal talks with any nation since 2020, when then-President Donald Trump’s administration made the relationships a priority in light of China’s efforts to strengthen its ties with Pacific nations.

Ambassador Joseph Yun formerly conducted negotiations with North Korea. Courtesy: State Department

During a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on March 29, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin criticized the Biden administration for the delay. He emphasized the degree to which the U.S. values its relationships with the Pacific nations, even as he repeatedly mispronounced Palau.

Despite the lag, Biden appears to be picking up the pace. Last month, he appointed Ambassador Joseph Yun as special presidential envoy for negotiations, a move that Hawaii’s congressional delegation has been urging the president to do since at least last summer.

Falcam said he met Yun last week and sees his appointment as a positive development. Civil Beat sought to interview negotiators from Palau and the Marshall Islands as well but didn’t hear back in time for this story.

Need For Climate Mitigation

Falcam said that while formal talks haven’t taken place since 2020, several informal technical discussions have occurred with the Federated States of Micronesia.

“It hasn’t been wasted time from the FSM perspective,” Falcam said. “We have taken advantage of the time so that we don’t have to revisit those technical details once we’re ready to get to the negotiating table.”

Islands in the Federated States of Micronesia are vulnerable to climate change effects. Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat/2014

Trump’s administration wanted to extend the compact funding without any changes. That would have entailed continuing to fund U.S. programs such as postal services that connect the island communities and federal deposit insurance for banks, as well as millions of dollars to support health care, education and infrastructure.

But keeping the  same level of funding doesn’t make sense to Falcam, who said that over time, the cost of providing health care and other services has risen and technology has changed. Climate change is another major concern. He thinks the compact funding could play a role in funding infrastructure that’s more resilient to typhoons and sea level rise.

He’s not the only one. In a recent panel discussion on climate change in the region, University of Hawaii professor Chip Fletcher and retired Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies professor J. Scott Hauger both emphasized that the talks should be a conduit for climate change mitigation.

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Hauger as a current professor. He retired last year.

James Naich, a former deputy ambassador for Micronesia who is not involved in negotiations, said climate change is an existential issue for the nation and region.

“You cannot talk about the future of this partnership without looking at the number one security issue facing the islands and that number one issue is climate change because climate change is already here,” Naich said. “It’s unrealistic to talk about the infrastructure grant, for instance, without taking a look at what climate change has done to the classroom buildings, to the primary roads, to the hospitals, to the airports.”

Pacific island countries like the compact nations have contributed very little to global warming compared with the U.S. but already their communities are being affected by rising sea levels and worsening storms.

“You don’t look around for seashells to pay for those (costs),” Naich said. “You need money to do that and as much as you can say, ‘No in the islands, we drink coconuts, we go fishing,’ those are very romantic ideas. In this day and age we need money and of course we look to the U.S. for help and for partnership.”

A Critical Opportunity

But the U.S. isn’t the only potential partner for these nations.

U.S. government studies have shown that Micronesia relies heavily on U.S. funding and the expiration of programs like U.S. Postal Service would be a huge blow to the country’s economy.

Funding for infrastructure is one aspect of the negotiations. Pictured here is a road on Weno, Chuuk. Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat/2014

But Falcam noted that while the U.S. is the nation’s “premiere strategic partner,” the country has other sources of international support.

“We are not attempting to be solely reliant on this compact for our resources,” Falcam said. “We have become a more integral part of a community of nations. Our ability to resource from multiple locations is maturing.”

That includes a “sound and friendly relationship with the People’s Republic of China,” Falcam said.

Awareness of China’s efforts to ingratiate itself with Pacific nations like Micronesia is part of what’s spurring Biden’s effort to resolve these talks and congressional pressure to do so.

Naich thinks that the compact funding should reflect the value of the military’s control over the region to U.S. national security, as well as the historical obligation of the U.S. to help the countries achieve self-sufficiency after gaining control over the islands during World War II.

Fully funding a trust fund intended to help the country achieve returns that would enable it to stop relying on U.S. grants would be a step in this direction, Naich said.

Other countries like the Marshall Islands are also dealing with the legacy of nuclear testing, such as Runit Dome, an aging concrete dome built by the U.S. to store radioactive waste not only from its Pacific testing but also from its Nevada testing. The dome is reportedly leaking and raising local concerns about further environmental damage.

Esther Kiaʻaina, former assistant secretary of insular affairs at the U.S. Department of Interior during President Barack Obama’s administration, knows firsthand how challenging it can be to obtain defense funding to fulfill treaty obligations.

But she noted that today’s talks are an opportunity for the military to respond to community concerns, in the same vein as the military’s agreement to shut down the Red Hill fuel facility and back away from its plan to create a new bombing range in the Marianas.

“Instead of studying what you think is safe, how about you clean it up?” Kiaʻaina said of Runit Dome. “That would be transformational, not just for Enewetak, but for the whole island, the whole nation-state, but for the region.”

The geopolitical situation in the region makes this a critical opportunity for the Pacific nations, Kiaʻaina said.

“There’s probably no better time for these nations to, number one, understand their value and utilize their value to fight for their people,” she said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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