Australia's Standing In Pacific Has Plummeted Because Of Our Climate Change Failure

The Guardian - Dermot O'Gorman*

It’s about the very survival of people, nations and cultures. If action isn’t taken there are islanders who may have nowhere to go

‘It is only recently that we have realised our political de-prioritisation of the Pacific islands and their needs has advanced China’s entrance to our region.’ Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP
Scott Morrison flew to the Solomon Islands last weekend to “show our Pacific step-up in action” but this policy will fail if his government doesn’t take meaningful action on climate change. A successful step-up must include stopping our own pollution, defending the sovereignty of our friends in the Pacific and offering a safety net to those who may need it.
Over the past five years Australia’s standing in the Pacific has declined dramatically because of an unwillingness to take strong action on climate change. It’s not as if the Pacific hasn’t been clear. From female fishers to the Fijian prime minister, to remote communities in the Solomon Islands, climate change is a top-order issue. It’s about the very survival of people, nations and cultures. If action isn’t taken, in 40 years there are people in Pacific island states who may have nowhere to go.
It’s difficult to overstate how upset Pacific Islanders are when they look at Australia’s track record on climate. We are one of the world’s worst per-capita polluters and biggest exporters of thermal coal. While the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs has a strong track record of support to Pacific islands, that record is totally contradicted by political rhetoric on climate and our lack of emission reductions.
In the week before our election, Pacific leaders issued a statement reiterating their concern:
All countries, with no caveats, must agree to take decisive and transformative action to reduce global emissions, and ensure at-scale mitigation and adaption support for those countries that need it.
If we do not, we will lose. We will lose our homes, our ways of life, our wellbeing and our livelihoods. We know this because we are experiencing loss already.
Yet, here at home, the Australian government is still failing to grasp that our backsliding on climate change action and promotion of thermal coal exports have significantly damaged our standing in the region. This lack of political solidarity (which at times strayed into outright contempt by the Abbott government) with our closest neighbours has altered the region’s geopolitical landscape.
This isn’t happening in a vacuum; China has spent the last decade dramatically expanding its influence in the Pacific. The ballooning of Chinese investment into infrastructure projects, such as the announcement that Huawei would build Papua New Guinea’s domestic internet network, has caused security concerns. This has heightened the stakes for Australia in our quest to get this right. It is only recently that we have realised our political de-prioritisation of the Pacific islands and their needs has advanced China’s entrance to our region.
For nearly two decades, as the World Wide Fund for Nature’s CEO in the Pacific, then China, and now Australia, I’ve met with the heads of nations, government ministers, senior officials and business and community leaders across the Asia-Pacific region who all speak about Australians with respect and warmth. But our relationships in the Pacific have been deeply undermined by a failure of political leadership on climate.
Australia can repair this relationship by listening to and acting on the needs of Pacific island nations. The Pacific step-up – overall a good policy with bipartisan support – must also become a climate step-up.
So, how? First, acting quickly at home to reduce our emissions and transition out of exporting thermal coal will show Australia has “heard” Pacific leaders. Reducing Australia’s pollution by 45% on 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero pollution by 2050 would be a good start, but it is the bare minimum we must do. There’s no point making emissions reductions at home then selling fuel that will be burnt elsewhere. We must also urgently commit to a just transition to phase out thermal coal exports by 2030.
Second, Australia must champion that Pacific Islanders will always be the owners of what they themselves now call “Pacific Ocean states”. This means acknowledging they retain enduring sovereign rights over their islands and seascapes, despite the current interpretation of the international law of the sea, which questions the ownership of exclusive economic zones once islands are submerged.
Third, we need to rebuild Australia’s beleaguered aid program which should have the Pacific step-up at its heart. It’s essential Australia expands programs that are helping Pacific nations build resilience and adapt to climate change impacts in line with their rallying cry: “We are not drowning. We are fighting.”
But in a worst-case scenario no option should be off the table, up to and including the granting of Australian permanent residency for the entire populations of those nations at greatest risk. As Kevin Rudd pointed out in his February 2019 essay, this would now include Tuvalu, Nauru and Kiribati – the combined populations of which are less than half of Australia’s annual regular migration intake.
I disagree, however, with the former prime minister’s suggestion that such arrangements should come at the cost of Pacific nations’ EEZs. Rather, this safety net should be an act of solidarity, humanity and mateship to our neighbours. By supporting islanders to retain the rights to their homelands, there will always be Pacific Ocean states.
The prime minister has a clear choice in Honiara. Listen to Pacific leaders and implement a Pacific step-up through new pro-Pacific, pro-development, pro-climate policies that embrace our neighbours’ needs, or risk a further decline in our regional standing and the consequences that come from that.

*Dermot O’Gorman is the CEO of WWF-Australia


No comments :

Post a comment

Lethal Heating is a citizens' initiative