Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

A watered-down climate change policy risks Pacific islands disappearing into the sea

Australia's refusal to commit to a UN pledge on cutting fossil fuel subsidies raises serious questions about its responsibilities to its neighbours

Locals on Tuvalu during a traditional fishing practice to round up fish to be cooked on an umu, or traditional earth oven. Mick Tsikas / EPA
Locals on Tuvalu during a traditional fishing practice to round up fish to be cooked on an umu, or traditional earth oven. Mick Tsikas / EPA

The crisis facing humanity over climate change could not be any clearer. A week does not go by without some new survey or fresh scientific evidence about the harm that heavy industrialisation and mankind’s lack of care for our shared environment pose to the planet’s diversity and our very survival.

The UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services said in May that up to one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction because of human behaviour. A quarter of the world’s population are now living in countries with high water stress, according to the World Resources Institute research organisation. At the same time, rising sea levels could cost large cities built on the shoreline around the globe trillions of dollars as flooding increases, and they pose an existential threat to low-lying states – as the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, pointed out when he once held a cabinet meeting underwater with his ministers in scuba gear.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded the statement be watered down in a number of ways, to the extent that the talks nearly broke down twice and emotions ran so high that the prime minister of Tonga burst into tears

One would have thought, then, that everyone would be keen to accede to the four demands that UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has asked world leaders and CEOs to deliver on, ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit in September. They are: for there to be no new funding or construction of coal facilities from 2020; for an end to fossil fuel subsidies; to make polluters pay; and for all to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

This was certainly true of most of the leaders at the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum, which met in Tuvalu last week. The initial draft statement presented to the participants was in lockstep with Mr Guterres, calling for “an immediate global ban on the construction of new coal plants and coal mines” and the “urgent phase out of all fossil fuel subsidies”.

However, the forum ended in acrimony. It was reported that one country wanted the paragraph deleted, asserting instead that this was “not a shared forum priority”. That was Australia, whose prime minister Scott Morrison demanded the statement be watered down in a number of ways, to the extent that the talks nearly broke down twice and emotions ran so high that the prime minister of Tonga burst into tears. The resulting statement disappointed nearly all present, and led to the conclusion that the current Australian administration does not take either the consequences of global warming or the plight of their Pacific neighbours seriously.

Mr Morrison, or “Scomo” as the conservative leader is known at home, promised $339 million to go towards renewable energy projects and to help the region deal with climate change, but it earned him no forgiveness for his intransigence over coal in particular. As Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, tweeted: “We came together in a nation that risks disappearing to the seas, but unfortunately, we settled for the communique. Watered-down climate language has real consequences – like water-logged homes, schools, communities, and ancestral burial grounds.” Tuvalu’s leader, Enele Sopoaga, was even more blunt, telling his Australian counterpart at one point: “You are trying to save your economy. I am trying to save my people.”

Mr Morrison is certainly fond of coal, however devastating the pollution its burning causes. His government strongly backed the opening of a controversial huge new mine in Queensland to be run by India’s Adani Group and he famously brandished a lump of coal in parliament when he was treasurer in 2017. “Don't be afraid, don't be scared, it won't hurt you. It's coal,” he said.

While it may be an undeniably important part of Australia’s economy, such blatant and unapologetic promotion of the fossil fuel has opportunity costs in terms of industries of the future. The head of one solar investment fund said recently that none of his investors wanted to do any business at all in Australia, despite the appropriateness of its climate. “They can all remember Scott Morrison standing up in parliament with a lump of coal,” he told the Renew Economy website. “The policy environment is too difficult.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arriving for the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu. Australian prime minister's office via AFP
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arriving for the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu. Australian prime minister's office via AFP

Mr Morrison’s stance also does serious damage to his country’s standing with the Pacific islands, where it is facing rising Chinese influence and investment in what Australia appears to consider its sphere of influence. This was only compounded by Mr Morrison’s deputy, Michael McCormack, who reacted to Pacific islanders’ criticism by retorting that they would “continue to survive because many of their workers come here and pick our fruit”. This prompted a tart response from Fiji’s Mr Bainimarama. “If this is the Australian government’s idea of a ‘step up’ in its relations with the Pacific, it’s certainly not a step forward. It’s a big step backwards,” he tweeted.

Further, it questions Australia’s place in the wider Asia-Pacific, where many states, near and far, feel that Canberra still assumes it possesses a prominence. When its former prime minister John Howard was designated by US president George W Bush as his “deputy sheriff”, it did nothing for his popularity among fellow heads of government. More recently, allegations have come to light that Australia not only unfairly benefited from oil and gas fields shared with Timor Leste but that it bugged cabinet meetings in Dili, the Timorese capital. Other Asian leaders, such as Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir Mohamad, have long evinced ambivalence or even animosity towards Australia’s pretensions to regional leadership.

Wiser heads in the country’s foreign policy firmament have cautioned that relying on being America’s trusted sidekick not only comes with no guarantee that Washington will continue to place value on such a relationship, but that it is wrong-headed. Because of where it is, Australia must be fully integrated in the Asia-Pacific. Being so blase about the concerns of its island neighbours and acting like the playground bully in forcing its case is no way to do so. The “lucky country”, as it used to be known, needs to have a care that nearby nations do not end up being exceedingly unlucky, to the point of ceasing to exist – partly because Australia holds out against actions on climate change that all must address with the utmost seriousness.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Updated: August 19, 2019 05:12 PM

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