A LETTER TO AUSTRALIA FROM THE PACIFIC
Australia’s role as a global climate action blocker is dangerous for our shared future. Pacific island countries are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, with more frequent and intense category 4 and 5 cyclones as well as sea level rise already causing the erosion of homes and internal migration. In Australia, we have recently experienced the severe bushfire season of 2019/2020, which decimated native wildlife, property and regional economies. Extreme heat days have also become hotter and more frequent.
The Australian government has a decision to make. It can listen to the requests of regional and international partners, strengthen its emissions reduction policies and significantly increase its climate finance contributions to the Pacific and developing countries worldwide. This will ensure that Australia does its fair share to mitigate against climate change and improve the climate resiliency of climate vulnerable communities. Or, it can choose climate inaction and condemn Australians to face myriad climate hazards, economic turmoil and a ‘pariah’ reputation on the world stage. This approach will have catastrophic knock-on effects for our Pacific island neighbours.
Two former heads of state in the Pacific wrote a letter to Australia to describe what the climate crisis means for the Pacific islands, and to express their disappointment with the Australian government for its years of climate inaction. These Pacific island leaders hope that the Australian government will step up and take leadership on climate change before it is too late.
The Rt. Hon. Bikenibeu Paeniu,
Former Prime Minister of Tuvalu
I am actually writing this from my home situated at the northern end of Fongafale Islet, Funafuti, the seat of Tuvalu’s capital looking to the horizon through the glistering clean water of the beautiful Funafuti lagoon! And I ask myself, is it indeed the case that my children and their children will not continue to live here in our beautiful home in years to come?
Australia’s position on climate change has not changed and may even be getting worse when it comes to climate change in support of the Pacific island countries. I say so as the first Leader to sign the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and having staunchly stood against the various Prime Ministers of Australia in my 3-times as Prime Minister of Tuvalu when debating on the final outcome document of PICs’ climate change position. In those days I used to think of Australia’s climate change diplomacy as highly un-human – in other words, it had no Pacific human face in it. Sadly, it is still the same today.
Australia’s tactic of manipulating the position of the Pacific island countries on climate change through the Pacific Islands Forum, the Pacific Community, the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme and the rest of regional smaller institutions, has not changed to this day. Pacific island countries will go to international forums, including COP summits, with a compromised position on climate change divesting its true platform of demands to ensure our security, resilience and prosperity. This is really sad. But Australia doesn’t seem to care! Rather, the interest of Australia has become the fighting platform of most Pacific island countries. This is due to Australia’s sad style of climate change diplomacy in our Pacific region. Then I say, ‘why?’. Why is Australia doing this? I am confident the majority of Australian citizens including Indigenous Australians do not identify themselves with Australia’s position on climate change.
I sincerely hope Australia and moreover her leaders will come to their human senses and show greater love and responsibility to its Pacific neighbors. Australia should take the Pacific as its main target by availing billions of dollars to help us in the Pacific to undertake large scale mitigation and adaptation activities to ensure we the people of the Pacific and more so those of us living on the atolls continue to stay and not be displaced. This can only happen if leaders of Australia commit to change. It’s been 30 years since Rio and Australia’s position continues to fail Pacific island countries. Those former Prime Ministers of Australia and leaders who had perpetuated Australia’s un-Pacific commitment on climate change – I am sure right now, if they are still living, they do not have inner peace in their beings!
If this COP26 is going to be truly life-saving for us in the Pacific, we can only hope that Australia will implement stronger 2030 emissions reduction targets and increase its climate finance contributions. Otherwise, I pray for a miracle from God to make Australia listen to her people and to her Pacific neighbors.
FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF TUVALU
The Rt. Hon. Anote Tong,
Former President of Kiribati
The suggestion that our global climate is being affected by human activity, but especially the substantial increase in emissions of greenhouse gases from burning of fossil fuels, is not a new one. Successive attempts at the international level – initially through the Kyoto Protocols and now the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – reflect the nagging concern that climate change is a matter warranting serious attention. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) started producing its reports, it became increasingly clear that climate change is a serious global challenge.
For those of us living on the low lying atoll islands in the Pacific, the very mention of “climate change causing a rise in sea level” was sufficient to cause panic. From the very early meetings of the Conference of the Parties (COPs) and the UNFCCC, successive Pacific island leaders had been expressing their concerns over the changing climate. However, their voices were quickly smothered under the very intensive lobbying efforts of the powerful fossil fuel industry to invalidate the science coming out of the IPCC reports.
When I came into office in 2003, the IPCC had by then released its 3rd Assessment report and like my predecessors I believed the report’s projected rise in sea levels posed a real threat to the survival for those of us on the frontline. Accordingly, in my very first address at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2004 I drew attention to the dangers posed by climate change, especially to small island nations like Kiribati and other Pacific island countries. The fact that no other leader made any reference to it in their statement worried me and I wondered whether I might be making a fool of myself, especially when the focus of international attention at the time was on a more real and present threat like terrorism. Thankfully by the next UNGA, in 2005, other Pacific island leaders in their statements joined the call for action on climate change. This has gathered great momentum in the years since.
The intense lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industry to discredit the IPCC’s reports did not ease up until after the 4th Assessment Report had been released in 2007. However, that did not mean they had given up on their mission to perpetuate the use of fossil fuels. They simply changed strategies, focusing their lobbying instead on manipulating political leaders into making climate change into a partisan issue on which politicians could be ideologically divided. It was therefore no surprise to hear this month, just before COP26, that the Australian government has recently tried to lobby the IPCC to water down the language of the latest report before its release.
Today not only is the science on climate change rock-solid but countries which in the past did not regard climate change as relevant to their lives are now beginning to experience unprecedented bushfires, deadly heat waves, more powerful storms, unprecedented melting of the polar regions and glaciers, among other impacts. This is incontrovertible evidence on the ground that climate change is indeed global in nature and no longer a distant reality. Pacific leaders have, over the past two decades, consistently drawn attention to the existential threats faced by our people, but especially those in the low lying atoll islands from climate change. Now it is becoming increasingly clear that unless we as a global community can collectively rally to radically reduce our emissions, the future existence of all humanity on this planet is at risk.
The Pacific Region, with the largest number of vulnerable island nations most at risk, has consistently been at the forefront of the campaign on climate change and the political and community leaders of the Pacific islands can be credited for much of the progress made in multilateral climate negotiations.
The one weakness in the force of our campaign has been the lack of unity in purpose with the larger members of our Pacific family. It has been a huge source of disappointment for us to witness the constant changes of climate policies with the eddies of political parties in power, in both Australia and New Zealand. It has always been, and continues to be, our hope that Australia – with its higher international profile – would provide us and the international community with the leadership we need on an issue of such critical importance to our people, our Pacific family.
The withdrawal of Australia’s support to climate financing through suspending its contributions to the Green Climate Fund was a huge blow to our expectations of building much needed climate resilience here in the Pacific islands. The recent announcement by the Australian Prime Minister, on the evening of his departure for COP26, of his Government’s revised climate policy does not indicate a change of position on climate financing nor does its emission targets reflect a genuine or meaningful contribution to addressing this existential threat. Australia has not made any changes to its weak 2030 emissions reduction target and remains well short of the commitments made by other members of the G20.
The burning question is: “With all of the science available to us today and with all of what we are witnessing happening in different parts of the world, why do we still not take the action needed to avoid the projected cataclysmic end to humanity?” Australia can and must be bolder on climate action, through strengthening its emissions reduction targets and increasing its climate finance contributions. Pacific peoples and Australians alike, as part of a Pacific family, depend on it.
FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF KIRIBATI