Sara E. Cannon, PhD

Aquatic Conservation Scientist

New publication: Climate change denial and the jeopardized interests of the United States in the Freely Associated States of Micronesia

I am excited to share my new publication, Climate change denial and the jeopardized interests of the United States in the Freely Associated States of Micronesia! The paper was published in the journal Asia Pacific Viewpoint just before the holidays and I am thrilled to be able to share it with you here.

In the paper, I argue that the United States’ failure to take meaningful action to stop climate change is undermining its own foreign policy goals in the Pacific. This is a bit outside of my usual research interests, but writing it gave me a much more thorough understanding of how some of the largest challenges facing both people and coral reefs in the Pacific Islands were created by colonial powers in the region. I had the chance to explore this topic when I took a graduate course in 2019, the Lind Seminar “America and the Climate Crisis”. (I spoke about the opportunity to participate in the course here.) I chose this topic for a course assignment because I hoped it would give me the chance to research the integral context for my work on marine ecology and decolonial conservation in the central Pacific. In particular, I was interested in learning and understanding more about how colonialism had created situations that make people in Micronesia more susceptible to the effects of climate change in the region today, as well as how factors beyond the control of Pacific Islanders have created vulnerabilities that were not present prior to colonialism. Further, I wanted to know more about how current policies continue to exacerbate these phenomena.

Throughout the paper, I attempted to highlight how the United States’ policies are contradictory and harmful, even when trying to view it from their perspective (in other words, by “seeing like an empire”, per Davis, 2015). I wrote the paper from the perspective of an empire (specifically, the US) because I felt that it would be the most effective way to show how the US is shooting itself in the foot with its climate policy. That said, this perspective and the narrative it produces is harmful to people in the FAS. Specifically, as I discuss in more detail in the paper, the actions the US has taken in the FAS rely on narratives that portray the Pacific Islands as places of vulnerability, helplessness, scarcity, and smallness, all of which legitimize the US’s interventions in the region. These narratives ignore and obscure the agency of local people. A number of scholars have discussed how climate change discourses are harmful to Pacific Islanders (for example, see Farbotko, 2010 and Barnett, 2017). People within the Pacific Islands have long contested these narratives (Hau’ofa, 1994; Davis, 2015). By employing the language used by the US here, I caution that I am by no means attempting to legitimize or endorse it.

I focus my arguments specifically on the relationship between the United States and the Freely Associated States (FAS) through the Compacts of Free Association (COFA). The FAS are three island nations located in the Micronesia region of the Pacific: the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and Palau. COFA are agreements between each nation and the United States, through which the US agreed to provide the FAS with funding that is meant to assist them with building local economies that would foster financial independence, while in return, the US gains complete regional military control. Importantly, the US or the FAS can terminate COFA at any time, but the FAS cannot terminate the US’s military control without its agreement.

This cartoon is from the 1983 publication Palau: Self-Determination vs. U.S. Military Plans, from the Micronesia Support Committee. The publication details Palauan activists’ efforts to protest COFA agreements because the US would not honour Palau’s constitutional ban on nuclear weapons in the agreements. The publication is available for free download here.

The paper contains three main sections: First, I provide a broad overview of colonialism in Micronesia, the history of COFA, and a summary of the potential future impacts of climate change in the Pacific. In the second section, I explain how climate change makes it more difficult for the FAS to achieve economic independence, therefore undermining the stated goals of COFA; I also provide evidence that the US has made the FAS more susceptible to climate change, and that the US has not taken enough action to mitigate this susceptibility, which forces the FAS to divert resources that could be spent on growing their economies to climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. Finally, the third section addresses how climate change threatens the goals of the US military in the FAS, particularly in today’s geopolitical environment, as the US competes with China to continue its hegemony in the Pacific. I detail how US military installations are threatened by climate change, the actions the US military is taking to address these threats, and discuss the current geopolitical climate in the region.

I am grateful for the opportunity to write this paper, to share it with all of you, and to apply what I’ve learned to my research. I would welcome any opportunity to discuss these concepts further, so please feel free to reach out if you have thoughts or feedback to share (or if you’d like a copy of the paper)!

Publication: Cannon, S.E. 2020. Climate change denial and the jeopardised interests of the United States in the Freely Associated States of Micronesia. Asia Pacific Viewpoint.

Selected Citations:

Barnett, J. (2017) ‘The dilemmas of normalising losses from climate change: Towards hope for Pacific atoll countries’, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 58(1), pp. 3–13.

Davis, S. (2015) The Empires’ Edge: Militarization, Resistance, and Transcending Hegemony in the Pacific. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Farbotko, C. (2010) ‘Wishful sinking: Disappearing islands, climate refugees and cosmopolitan experimentation’, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 51(1), pp. 47–60.

Hau’ofa, E. (1994) ‘Our Sea of Islands’, The Contemporary Pacific, 6, pp. 148–161. doi: 10.4324/9781315247175-26.


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