Australia’s authority in Pacific ‘being eroded by refusal to address climate change’

Vanuatu's Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu. Picture: RNZ

SYDNEY, 07 SEPTEMBER 2018 (THE GUARDIAN) – Australia’s regional authority and influence is being eroded by its refusal to address the threat climate change poses to many of its Pacific neighbours, according to a pre-eminent climate scientist.

As part of the Pacific Islands Forum, Australia was a signatory to the Boe declaration in Nauru on Wednesday which said climate change represented “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”.

But Australia attempted to water down the language of the declaration, other Pacific countries have said, resisting language around urgent action to cut emissions, and issued qualifications to part of the Pacific Islands Forum communique over the Paris climate agreement.

Several sources from the PIF forum have corroborated Australia’s efforts to weaken the Boe Declaration.

Vanuatu’s minister for foreign affairs Ralph Regenvanu said: “I was there, and can confirm this is true. And unfortunate.”

Asked specifically by Guardian Australia whether Australia had sought to weaken the language of the declaration, Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne neither rejected nor confirmed the allegation.

“The communique is an agreed document of the Leaders’ Retreat. It is not appropriate to discuss the internal talks of the private Leaders’ Retreat. Pacific Island Forum leaders’ discussions are typically robust and frank and canvas a broad range of issues, including regional security, economic growth, climate change, fisheries and disaster response.”

Payne said Australia understood the centrality of the climate threat to many Pacific Islands, and “the importance that Pacific countries place on effective global action to combat climate change”.

Australia has pledged $300 million (US$215 million) for climate change action in the Pacific between 2016 and 2020, and has also contributed $200 million (US$143 million) to the Green Climate Fund.

Dr Bill Hare, managing director of Climate Analytics and a lead author on the IPCC fourth assessment report, told Guardian Australia that Pacific leaders were growing increasingly disenchanted with Australia’s refusal to commit to cutting carbon emissions, even as their nations faced massive economic, physical and social disruption, even existential threat.

“The leaders are not fools, and they are increasingly confronted by the problems of climate change, in all its different dimensions,” Hare said. “The problem for Australia is it doesn’t have credibility on climate. Australia is an important player for many of the Pacific Island countries, well-respected and well-liked by the populations and the political leaders, but on climate change there is a chasm opening up.

“I hear it from Pacific leaders all the time: they are fighting to save their countries and their people and they cannot understand why the Australian government leadership can’t see the problems they’ve got.”

Hare said while the language in the Boe declaration was strong, the real test for Australia would be in its actions to address its own emissions, and in helping the Pacific with adaptation.

“The actions will not match the gravity of the declaration or the gravity of the need. There is a credibility gap: Australia is not acting on reducing its own emissions. All the leaders know that whenever the prime minister or energy minister says Australia will meet its Paris targets ‘in a canter’, that that it is wrong, it is factually incorrect – it is bullshit.

“They know Australia is working to slow down action on meeting Paris targets, they know Australia is promoting coal, and they know it’s going to cause a climate catastrophe. Australia has dedicated and able diplomats across the region, but the political leadership of the government is so far removed from reality, it opens up major problems for the country.”

Pacific leaders were confronting losing large proportions of their territory, and the forcible displacement of their populations, Hare said. He said leaders did not want their next generations to grow up dislocated, living in foreign cities like Sydney and Auckland, with the attendant loss of identity, culture and self-esteem.

Support for Australia could ebb away, with Pacific Islands looking to other benefactors – in particular China – which has made massive in its aid spending and diplomatic engagement in the region. China is set to overtake Australia as the largest donor to the Pacific, after pledging US$4bn in aid to the region last year.

But climate action is acutely politically sensitive for the Australian government, having just abandoned the National Energy Guarantee – which would have mandated emissions cuts – and new prime minister Scott Morrison facing pressure from some members within his own party to abandon Australia’s Paris agreement targets.

Morrison said specific emissions reductions targets were not necessary to meet Australia’s Paris goals: “the business-as-usual model gets us there in a canter”.

That directly contradicts advice from the government’s own Energy Security Board that says business as usual will mean the electricity sector will “fall short of the emissions reduction target of 26% below 2005 levels”.

The Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive officer, Kelly O’Shanassy, said Australia’s Boe declaration commitment was welcomed but must be matched by domestic action.

“It’s not surprising that Pacific leaders have been unhappy with Australia on climate change with the Morrison government turning up at the Pacific Islands Forum with no real plan to cut our domestic pollution and without a clear indication that it intends to develop one.”

More Stories