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Acting Assistant Secretary Jennifer Littlejohn’s Remarks at The University of the South Pacific
October 31, 2023

Acting Assistant Secretary Jennifer Littlejohn’s Remarks at The University of the South Pacific

Thank you, Deputy Vice Chancellor Pāunga for that kind introduction, and thank you Professor Holland, and all of you for such a warm welcome.  It is an honor to be with you here in the heart of the Pacific at the University of the South Pacific (USP), where so much good work is going on.

I know that the University of the South Pacific has a vision of “shaping Pacific futures.”  Hopefully your influence and leadership will not stop there.

As the world confronts the global challenges of climate change, the biodiversity crisis, and the pollution crisis, it is important that USP train leaders and scientists who will have a voice in shaping the world’s future.  Climate and environmental pressures are acutely felt in the Pacific, and what happens in the Pacific will have an impact on how the world grapples with the great challenges of our time.  We need your voices at the table.

The United States is committed to helping you strengthen that voice and your ability to meet the challenge of climate change.

Today I would like to talk about how the United States is addressing climate change and how we are working with Pacific partners to do so, sometimes in surprising and innovative ways.  I also want to talk about how this all comes together in our shared values – namely, in what kind of world we want to pass on to the next generation. 

In that spirit, I would like to start by announcing an exciting new partnership that the United States is launching with USP.  The Bureau of the State Department that I lead – the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs – has awarded a $5 million grant to USP to establish a new Resilience and Adaptation Fellowship for Rising Leaders, to train the next generation of Pacific climate leadership in partnership with premier U.S. universities.  This will mean bringing U.S. experts to USP and sending USP students and faculty to U.S. institutions that are leaders on a host of climate-related issues. 

These topics include natural resource economics and management, resilient food systems, renewable energy development, water security, and waste management. 

This partnership will strengthen USP as a center of excellence to help the Pacific meet climate-related and environmental challenges.  It will help train the next generation of Pacific leaders and scientists to manage resources here and lend their voices to global efforts. 

The grant has been funded and awarded to USP, but stay tuned for more details, as we work through how to get the most out of the program. 

The Pacific is getting a lot of attention these days, and rightly so.  Just last month, President Biden hosted the second Summit of Pacific Island leaders at the White House to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the region and to exchange views on how to address some of the Pacific’s challenges.  It was a productive meeting because we are already doing a lot together.  In fact, President Biden announced a new slate of activities, including plans to work with Congress to request and provide nearly $200 million in funding.  The fact sheet released by the White House at the summit that summarizes the programs and cooperative efforts among our countries goes on for 15 pages.  Let me repeat – 15 pages!

The highlights include a host of assistance packages to help mitigate climate change, a new tuna treaty that brings tens of millions of dollars more in U.S. assistance every year to the region, cooperation to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (or “IUU fishing), and the return of Peace Corps volunteers to some Pacific Island nations.

The President announced that the United States would establish diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands and Niue [new-way].

The most important thing about our list of commitments is not any one program or the total amount of funding pledged; it is the overall commitment to strengthen and deepen our relationships and to take effective action together.  And we are doing that. 

In this spirit, the United States released its first ever Strategy for the Pacific Islands last year.  Importantly, our strategy is designed to align with your own 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.

In short, the United States is firmly committed to the prosperity and security of the Pacific.  That prosperity and security requires a foundation consisting of a healthy and resilient ocean and environment, and a dynamic science and technology ecosystem.  Our work together in these areas is what I would like to talk about next.  This work involves specific projects with the Pacific, but it also involves broader, global efforts that will also have a profound effect on the Pacific.  I will talk about both.

Let us get straight to the point:  we all know that the Pacific Island states face an existential crisis as they contend with an ocean that is increasingly higher, warmer, more acidic, and less productive.  It is critical for the Pacific and for the world that we act now.

The United States is working with Pacific Islands to advance ocean-climate solutions, while working to advance conservation and biodiversity globally.  And greater cooperation in science and technology helps us achieve all these goals.

Climate Impacts and Adaptation Measures

First, let us talk about our work on combatting climate change and measures we are taking to adapt to climate change. 

As a baseline, we remain committed to keeping a 1.5 °C limit to temperature rise within reach.  The United States is taking action domestically to implement our emissions reduction commitments.  The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 calls for large investments in clean energy which will help us meet our commitment to reduce U.S. emissions by 50-52% by 2030.

We will not reach our global goal, however, unless other major economies also step up, particularly those whose nationally determined contributions [under the Paris Agreement] are not yet aligned to a 1.5C pathway.  We continue to urge these economies to accelerate their commitments and implementation of those commitments, and we are eager to coordinate with Pacific Island countries and others in this effort.

As we cut emissions and urge others to do so, we also are taking steps to deal with the climate crisis and mitigate its impacts already underway.  As you and your leaders have made very clear, the issue is particularly acute here in the Pacific. 

The Joint Declaration released by the White House and the Pacific Island leaders at the summit calls the climate crisis “the highest priority of our partnership,” and, I quote, “it remains the single greatest existential threat to the livelihoods, security, traditional and customary practices, and wellbeing of people in the Pacific region.”

We have initiatives to respond to this need.  One important area is climate finance:  The United States has committed to help stand up the Pacific Resilience Facility, a PIF-led regional financing facility with the goal of building Pacific resilience in the face of more frequent and severe disasters and ongoing climate change threats.  

USAID has helped mobilize climate finance for the region through their Climate Ready program, and recently announced a new climate finance activity to help Pacific regional organizations and national governments access climate finance to support climate adaptation.

We also recognize the vital role of young people such as yourselves as caretakers and advocates for your ocean continent and home.  The $5 million grant we are awarding to USP to train Pacific leaders on climate-related issues will help raise these voices.  And that’s why the Peace Corps, USAID, and local partners are launching the Blue Pacific Youth Initiative.  This program will work with young advocates to elevate climate literacy, bolster community adaptation projects, and reinforce disaster mitigation plans.

The United States has also made a commitment to help protect Pacific Island sovereignty and boundaries in the face of climate change.  Last year, the United States announced that sea-level rise driven by human-induced climate change should not diminish the maritime zones on which island States and other coastal States rely, including for food and livelihoods.  We encourage all States to adopt a practice consistent with this approach by COP 28.

Building on this policy, and understanding that for many low-lying island States, rising sea levels pose an existential threat, President Biden announced during the U.S.-Pacific Island Summit that the United States considers that sea-level rise driven by human-induced climate change should not cause any country to lose its statehood — or its membership in the United Nations or other international organizations. 

We are committed to working with the Pacific Islands and others to advance these objectives, even as we must do everything we can to curb greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Much of the work that the United States does on climate falls under PREPARE, or the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE).  Launched in 2021, the United States aims to assist more than half a billion people in developing countries adapt to and manage the impacts of climate change by 2030.  This includes work in the Pacific. 

For example, we are providing nearly $6 million to establish a Resilient Blue Economies program.  This program will help the Pacific Islands strengthen the ability to mitigate the effects of climate change, a key adaptation need identified by Pacific leaders.

The program will also strengthen the capacity of the Pacific Community to combine climate science and marine spatial planning, a process that brings together multiple users of the ocean to decide how to use marine resources sustainably, including, for example, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture governance, and marine conservation.  All of this is to promote resilient Pacific economies.

We also announced our intention to work with Congress to provide an additional $6 million, on top of $15 million we announced last year, to expand our work in weather and climate observations, provide critical communications services, and develop decision-support tools and products so that all Pacific Island communities have access to effective early warnings that save lives.

Additionally, the United States intends to work with Congress to co-fund a fisheries and ocean science vessel to be managed by the Pacific Community.  Partners in the Blue Pacific intend to jointly provide $22 million for a vessel that will support sustainable management of the region’s tuna resources at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission as well as ocean science research critical to addressing climate change impacts on the ocean.

Of course, our cooperation with the Pacific Islands extends beyond PREPARE.  For example, we recognize that climate change can have the most significant impacts on those communities at greatest risk of disaster.  Last year alone USAID provided over $20 million to strengthen disaster management capacity and resilience and response across the Pacific.

We know that the ocean plays a key role in our Earth’s climate.  It distributes heat around our planet, influences global weather patterns, and plays a significant role in the carbon cycle.  And climate impacts on the ocean are already here.

Decarbonizing ocean-based industries can contribute significantly to emissions reductions.  And in this regard, we are proud to partner with Fiji to explore establishing green shipping corridors in the region.  Green shipping corridors are a key means of spurring the early adoption of zero-emission fuels and technologies.

On this note, we also plan to conduct a second round of the Green Shipping Challenge at COP 28, an effort launched with Norway to drive climate action in the shipping sector in this decade and invite both new announcements and updates to those made at COP27.

Other nature-based ocean climate solutions such as mangrove restoration can reduce emissions while offering important co-benefits, like conserving biodiversity and enhancing food security.  Through the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance, the State Department is supporting an effort to map and quantify the resilience benefits of mangroves and coral reefs and their role in reducing coastal flood risk for vulnerable communities.  The U.S. Forest Service in Fiji and Palau is supporting these efforts.

 We are keen to continue discussions on how we can work together leading up to, and after, Dubai to advance ocean-climate solutions, support the Pacific Islands and their 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, and continue building upon this important work. 

 The climate crisis and the ocean are inextricably intertwined; we must work together to implement ocean-based solutions to the climate crisis while also protecting our ocean.

 As you can see, we have a full climate agenda with the Pacific, both initiatives in the region and global efforts that will impact the Pacific. 

 Global Actions on Conservation and Biodiversity

The United States is also doing a great deal of important work with the Pacific on conservation and biodiversity.  Much of this is global in scope.

Last December, the global community reached consensus on the Global Biodiversity Framework, which commits nations to protecting and conserving at least 30% of the earth’s land, inland waterways, and ocean by 2030.

The United States is well on its way to meeting this commitment domestically through the “America the Beautiful” initiative announced by President Biden, and we are assisting foreign partners, including Pacific Island nations, in meeting their 30×30 commitments. 

We have also seen progress on protecting the ocean.  After years of negotiation, the international community finalized the text of the High Seas Treaty.  This treaty, among other things, creates a mechanism for establishing marine protected areas on the high seas.  In New York last month, on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, the High Seas Treaty opened for signature.  To date, the United States and over 80 other nations, including Pacific Island nations, have signed the Treaty. 

Marine protected areas can conserve biodiversity, replenish fish stocks, safeguard ocean ecosystem health, sequester carbon, protect coasts, and support fishing, tourism, and recreation.

We also are making progress on curbing plastic pollution.  The UN launched negotiations last year on a new global agreement on plastic pollution with the ambitious goal to finalize the text by the end of 2024.  The next round of negotiations takes place in Kenya next month.  The talks are not easy, but developing an effective agreement is important.     

We know that 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year.  By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean.

Plastic pollution is far too complex for governments to solve on their own.  Last month, the United States launched the End Plastic Pollution International Collaborative, or “EPPIC,” to bring in more partners.  EPPIC is a public-private partnership designed to galvanize action and investment to end plastic pollution.  This effort will bring smart and innovative minds together, from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to develop the circularity of plastic throughout its lifecycle.  It is going to take all of us working together to solve this problem.

It is also important to remember that our environment and climate work is really about taking care of people, particularly those most impacted by changes in the ocean, pollution, environmental degradation, and the climate crisis.  These include Indigenous Peoples, groups in vulnerable situations, and women and youth who have not always had a voice in decisions about our collective future.  We recognize the importance of giving them a seat at the negotiating table.   

That has led the United States to change its approach on certain matters.

Domestically, the United States is working more closely with Indigenous leaders on conservation and biodiversity, through the White House Council on Native American Affairs.  We are doing more to reach out internationally, as well.  Last year, the Department of State launched the Indigenous Peoples Finance Access Facility (IPFAF) with the goal of providing support to Indigenous Peoples around the world to directly access existing finance mechanisms, supporting their efforts to continue to conserve some of the most critical forests on earth.

The United States will continue to work to include all voices in conservation efforts and efforts to combat the climate crisis.

 We know from past experience, like the Indigenous-led commitments from Our Oceans Conference in Palau, that including those most affected by the climate crisis is crucial to development of solutions.

 In Fiji, our Embassy works with Indigenous Peoples and local communities to empower women’s economic development and support clean energy transition through programs like public diplomacy grantee Rise Beyond the Reef and regional environmental office small grants for fuel efficient cook stoves.

 Science and Technology Cooperation 

Lastly, let me talk a bit about science and technology, which are key to addressing the critical challenges of our time.  We call this “tech for good.”

Domestically, President Biden launched the Net-Zero Game Changers Initiative last year and instructed U.S. science funding agencies to prioritize R&D investments that advance climate change mitigation and adaptation solutions. 

We are also actively promoting the development of the technology sector in the Pacific.  For example, we are supporting the first Global Innovation through Science and Technology (or “GIST”) workshop for tech startups and investors in the Pacific in Nadi this week.  GIST is a global program with a long history of success.  The initiative has empowered more than 15,000 science and technology innovators in over 130 emerging economies through training, pitch competitions, workshops, and networking.

International cooperation in science and technology is often key to sharing knowledge and accelerating innovation.  The United States remains committed to working with our partners around the world, including in the Pacific, to strengthen science and technology cooperation and to create a science research ecosystem characterized by resilience, integrity, openness, reciprocity, trust, and security.

We continue to promote opportunities for American and Pacific scientists and students to collaborate on scientific research, including marine research.  We look forward to further cooperation by integrating more local scientists into research projects.  We also hope to gain more support for ocean data collection for critical ocean observing systems that enhance understanding of weather and climate change in the face of sea-level rise. 

We see novel uses of satellite data and artificial intelligence to protect the planet and safeguard our natural resources, and we are working with Pacific Island nations to help map your ocean resources with satellite data. 

And to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, the Department is investing in cutting edge maritime domain awareness technology that identifies and processes a broad range of radio frequency signals to help our partners including in the Pacific to track fishing vessels and help inform counter-IUU fishing operations.

We are making exciting progress in space cooperation as well.  It is noteworthy that space cooperation has produced technical advances that countries in the Pacific and around the world have been able to utilize to manage their natural resources.  In one example, a team of students and researchers from USP and two other local universities utilized satellite data to promote coastal management and mangrove protection in Fiji.  It was this project that won them the grand prize at the Space for Planet Earth Challenge at Embassy Suva last year on Earth Day. 

I would like to take this opportunity to offer a belated congratulations to the “Yadrava na Vanua” team.

Are any of the team members here today?  If so, could you please stand so we can recognize you?  I would like us to give them a round of applause. 

I am also proud to announce that we have awarded another grant to support the next round of the Space for Planet Earth Challenge in 2024, which will focus on incentivizing university and secondary school teams across the Pacific to leverage satellite data to identify new methods to track methane emissions around the world.

These efforts highlight how space exploration and research can be leveraged to solve shared challenges at home, including the climate crisis.  They also demonstrate the critical role that all of you, as representatives of the next generation of Pacific scientific leaders, can play in helping to solve these global challenges.

Let me leave you with a final thought:  the challenges of combatting climate change and mitigating against its effects are daunting indeed.  We call it a crisis, and it is a crisis.  But know that we are working hard and working together to meet these challenges.  And we are making a difference.  Our cooperation here in the Pacific and on the global stage will be vital to our success.  We need Pacific voices – and Pacific actions – to ensure our planet thrives for future generations.  The United States looks forward to addressing these challenges together with you.

It has been a pleasure speaking with you today.  Thank you.