Over the past decade, Pacific nations have received about $2.2 billion in financing to help them adapt to the effects of climate change. That might sound like a lot of money, but the United Nations estimates the actual need is far greater.

“There is a massive gap,” Rupeni Mario from the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme said at a Honolulu conference last month via Zoom from Samoa.

The need for more climate financing — and the importance of ensuring such funding is effective — is gaining more urgency as Pacific leaders raise alarm in Honolulu, Washington, D.C. and soon Egypt about how global warming is increasingly an existential threat to their communities.

The island nations contribute some of the fewest fossil fuel emissions globally. Meanwhile, they’re already dealing with disappearing islands, worsening storms, increasing outmigration and other serious effects of climate change driven by larger emitters like the U.S. and China.

Coconut tree roots are exposed with the erosion of sand at Haleiwa Beach Park.
Sand erosion left coconut tree roots exposed on Oahu’s North Shore. Across the Pacific region, island communities want more funding to address sea level rise and other effects of climate change. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Calls for those countries to contribute more for mitigation and adaptation efforts in the Pacific are expected to be a major topic of discussion at the United Nations’ COP27 conference, set to begin on Sunday.

Pacific island communities also face many challenges in actually utilizing the funds. Even if more global financing becomes available, Pacific communities need help accessing it, then ensuring it’s spent effectively.

The first hurdle is finding the funding. In September, the U.S. pledged $800 million for the Pacific region at the inaugural Pacific Islands Summit in Washington, D.C. Three-quarters of the new funding is expected to support economic assistance over the next decade through the South Pacific Tuna Treaty.

Pressure To Step Up

But just $15 million of that is dedicated specifically to climate adaptation. That reflects an ongoing trend where climate finance makes up a relatively small percentage of overall foreign funding that flows to the Pacific region.

One United Nations estimate found that between 2011 and 2016, Pacific nations received about $2 billion annually in foreign aid, far more than $2 billion total for all climate finance over the past decade. Current U.S. programs include efforts to strengthen Pacific institutions’ ability to apply for and effectively spend climate funding as well as disaster resilience.

Still, the United States is under more pressure to increase its commitment. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has indicated the Biden administration is open to doing so, but he has been looking to private capital for help given that the cost of climate change-induced damage is expected to exceed $2 trillion a year.

“The only entity in the world that has the money to transition fast enough to keep us under 1.5 is the private sector,” Kerry told the New Yorker last week, referring to the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

This is not a new problem. In 2009, developed countries pledged to set aside $100 billion annually for climate change, but the actual funding has fallen far short.

“The impact of that is very real, and very human: it means that sea walls are not built, that infrastructure is lacking, that we are less able to prepare for the threats we know are coming,” said Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands.

Keith Bettinger, senior technical director of climate change for the international development firm DT Global, said in an interview that the Pacific is different from many other places because rural communities are so dispersed, driving up the cost of projects.

He noted the Green Climate Fund, which has been by far the largest funder in the Pacific region since 2014, has a $10 billion fund to support climate change adaptation projects worldwide. That’s on par with how much money has been approved so far to pay for Honolulu’s long-delayed rail project.

“It’s a really stark comparison when you think of one infrastructure project in Honolulu, Hawaii, is pretty much how much is made available to the Green Climate Fund,” he said. “To put it in vulgar terms, we are basically pissing against a stream. That’s what we’re doing about climate change adaptation.”

Hard To Access Funds

The next challenge is getting the money from the global funds to the communities on the ground facing the brunt of climate impacts.

“It’s not easy accessing climate funds,” said Chip Fletcher, interim dean of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He thinks more technical expertise to help Pacific countries navigate the financial requirements to obtain grants would help.

Stege wishes climate funders would make it easier for Pacific countries with limited resources to apply for grants.

“The hoops that we have to jump through to access climate finance means that we often have to make difficult choices between which donors to apply to, and dedicate our staff time to submitting applications rather than actually getting work done on the ground the way we’d like to,” she said.

President Joe Biden speaks during the first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens at left. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Joe Biden’s administration held the first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit last month amid calls for Washington to do more help to mitigate the effects of climate change. AP Photo/Susan Walsh/2022

One major hurdle is getting through the accreditation process established by the Green Climate Fund. Noa Seru from Fiji is the former senior climate and finance adviser for the USAID Climate Ready project. In his experience, the requirements for obtaining climate funding can be stressful for local governments and other institutions that have limited human resources.

He said the Tongan Development Bank has just two people dedicated to climate finance and the Fiji Development Bank, which achieved accreditation by the Green Climate Fund, has three.

He thinks the fund could be more effective if it had a Pacific office that vetted applications at an earlier stage and if Pacific communities had a voice on its board.

The fund is aware that countries like Pacific island states could benefit from less red tape.

Scott Craig, spokesman for the Green Climate Fund, said the board recently approved a new streamlined process and updated an existing simplified approval process that’s accessible to island nations engaging in small-scale projects. The fund also has a pilot program to support homegrown organizations that was utilized by the Federated States of Micronesia.

“GCF is committed to working with developing nations in the Pacific and elsewhere to continue to simplify access to climate finance given the scale of needs on the ground,” he said in an email.

Implementation Challenges

All 14 Pacific countries in the Green Climate Fund’s portfolio have received funding to some degree, at a minimum money to strengthen their local capacities, Craig said. The fund is also making progress on getting money to communities faster.

“Our delivery times have already fallen significantly,” he added. “The average time from the start of review of funding proposals to first disbursement for approved projects has fallen from 27-28 months in 2018 to 16-21 months in 2021.”

Once the money is received, Pacific communities face difficulties in implementing projects. Often, money gets spent on hiring outside consultants rather than building needed infrastructure, said Bettinger from DT Global.

Bettinger noted large international organizations often focus on large-scale projects but thinks Pacific communities could benefit from more control over funding that could be directed to smaller community-based organizations.

He supports increasing funding that goes directly to Pacific governments’ budgets, allowing them control over their climate change initiatives and supporting national funds like the Tonga Climate Change Trust Fund that can more easily make funding available to grassroots groups.  

“The impact of that is very real, and very human: it means that sea walls are not built, that infrastructure is lacking, that we are less able to prepare for the threats we know are coming.” — Marshall Islands climate envoy Tina Stege

Seru said one of the silver linings of the coronavirus pandemic was that it forced Pacific countries to rely on locals rather than flying in outside consultants.

“Too often we rely on fly-in and fly-out technical expertise,” he said. Instead, Pacific countries could benefit from more training in project management, while outside consultants could continue to play advisory roles and help mentor local talent, he said.

Fletcher from the University of Hawaii said a certificate program that allows students to participate remotely could be one way to address the need to build up local capacity in finance and accounting, project management and climate science.

Regardless of whatever steps are taken, Seru believes Pacific peoples need to be more at the forefront of climate finance discussions.

“I think too often we put the international expertise at the forefront and the Pacific Islanders in the background,” he 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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