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Condescension and Climate Change: Australia and the Failure of the Pacific Islands Forum

It was predictably ugly: in tone, in regret, and, in some ways, disgust. Australia emerged from the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting isolated, the true spoiler of the party which saw 17 states facing the obstinacy of one. It had taken place on Tuvalu, some two hours flight north of Fiji. The capital Funafuti is located on vanishing land; the island state is facing coastal erosion, the pressing issue of salinity, the very crisis of its existence.

Pacific Island leaders were already wise to the accounting cosmetics of Canberra’s accountants prior to the Forum. It reeked, for instance, of a gesture for permissive pollution to the tune of $500 million: we give you money to boost “resilience” and sandbag your countries against rising water levels; we will keep polluting and emitting with expanded fossil fuel projects because that is what we are good at.

Alex Hawke, Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, called the cash promise the “most amount of money Australia has ever spent on climate in the Pacific.” As Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga explained, “No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse not to do the right thing.” That right thing was a reduction in emissions, “including not opening your coal mines.”

The PIF leaders were also aware about what disruptive role Australia was going to play. Australian politicians of the past and present have done little to endear themselves to a forum they have only recently felt more interest in because of China’s increasingly conspicuous presence. In 2015, when Tony Abbott held the reins of power, his culturally challenged immigration minister Peter Dutton, in conversation with the prime minister, quipped rather darkly that “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.” The remark was a response to a meeting on Syrian refugees which had been running late, or on “Cape York time”, as he put it.

Ahead of the leaders’ forum, an annotated draft of the Pacific Islands Forum declaration revealed a sprinkling of qualifications, repudiations and rejections on the part of the Australian delegation. The comments from August 7 sought to restrict any total decarbonisation, bans on the future use of coal power plants, opt out clauses for the 1.5C limit in temperature rise, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and the very mention of the term ‘climate change’.

When it came to proceedings, Prime Minister Scott Morrison showed his true garish colours: Australia was a small contributor to emissions; it was a global problem, and so others had to do more. In short, the weak excuse of any emission producing state. Besides, he kept trumpeting, Australia was a leading investor in the sector of renewables.

Back in Australia, the Australian broadcaster and regular vulgarian Alan Jones was busy attacking the leaders of the gathering, most notably New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who had suggested that Australia “had to answer the Pacific” on the climate change issue. A sock, he suggested, should have been strategically placed down her throat. He subsequently suggested that this was a “wilful misrepresentation of what I said obviously distract from the point that she was wrong about climate change and wrong about Australia’s contribution to carbon dioxide levels.”

Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was sickeningly unimpressed, having expressed open admiration for New Zealand’s efforts to combat climate change. “Easy to tell someone to shove a sock down a throat when you’re sitting in the comfort of a studio. The people of the Pacific, forced to abandon their homes due to climate change, don’t have that luxury. Try saying it to a Tuvaluan child pleading for help.”

Michael McCormack, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, added the most revealing touch on Australia’s position at the PIF during a revealing business function in the rural town of Wagga Wagga on Friday. (McCormack, it should be noted, is on record as disputing evidence of an increase in global temperatures). With an address heavy with bruising paternalism, he thought the PIF leaders were bellyaching, needlessly lamenting their fate. He admitted “getting a bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and saying we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive.” He had little doubt they would continue to do so, due to the “large aid assistance from Australia” and “because their workers come here and pick our fruit, pick our fruit grown with hard Australian enterprise and endeavour and we welcome them and we always will.” The only thing lacking in the statement was a Boris Johnson-styled garnish: a reference to cannibalism, or the toothy watermelon smiles.

A neat summary of the entire encounter between the Pacific Island leaders and Australia was provided by Tuvalu’s Sopoaga. “You [Scott Morrison] are concerned about saving your economy in Australia… I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.”

The final communique proved lukewarm and non-committal, a feeble reiteration of existing understandings that climate change was a serious matter. Bainimarama supplied an acid opinion on the final text. “We came together in a nation that risks disappearing to the seas, but unfortunately, we settled for the status quo of our communique. Watered-down climate language has real consequences – like water-logged homes, schools, communities, and ancestral burial grounds.” Sopoaga was even more dramatic in assessing the response to the weakened language of the communique. “There were serious arguments and even shouting, crying, leaders were shedding tears.”

Sadly, the main Australian opposition party would not have done much better. Efforts on the part of Senator Penny Wong to claim a drastically different Labor approach must be put to rest. This is a party torn on the subject of King Coal, energy costs and renewables.

The hysterical aspect to PIF is that Australia’s denuding contribution will only serve to damage its own interests. In the short-term, Chinese diplomats will be delighted by the self-sabotaging efforts of the Morrison government. Beijing’s Special Envoy to the Pacific, Ambassador Wang Xuefeng, was on hand to tell the forum that “no matter how the international situation evolves, China will always be a good friend, partner and brother of Pacific Island Countries.” Expect a surge of interest towards the PRC in the forthcoming months.

A longer-term consequence is also impossible to ignore. Fine to joke about having refugee islanders pick the fruit of your country, but to do so requires places to grow fruit. Rising sea levels may will cause the dreaded vanishing of the island states, but it will also submerge a good deal of Australia’s precariously placed coastal cities. What a bitter, if not deserved outcome that would be.


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  1. John Hermann

    The leaders of the Liberal and National parties are such an embarrassment to this country, and are operating against this country’s long term interests. They possess no moral authority whatsoever, have destroyed whatever goodwill existed between pacific countries and Australia, and have closed any windows that were previously open for Australia to grab the initiative for cementing cooperative relations with pacific island nations, rightly concerned about the adverse consequences of climate change. It is nothing less than a matter of survival for them. Australia’s failure to show leadership in these matters will translate into opportunities for other large Asian powers to do so.

  2. ajogrady

    If what Morrison says is correct and that we are all part of the Pacific family then if this is true Morrison is the paedophile father who continually and without conscience abuses and violates his children.

  3. Josephus

    Meanwhile oil and gas companies have licences to explore and exploit if they can over another 200 000 sq km of land in Northern Australia to add to the hundreds of such projects in operation. The incoming sea will further ruin farmland not already fracked, mined, burnt or flooded . One day thousands of Pacific climate refugees will turn up, Where will they live? Water and food will not suffice so people will fight over dwindling resources.

  4. wam

    Tuvalu is Af.
    I wonder what it will change too? It probably wont matter when global warming has drowned the island and killed the reefs?

  5. Miriam English

    Rising sea levels are not the only danger, of course. Australia is in the grip of the worst drought on record, and it will probably get worse. Hotter atmospheres result in worse storms, and the rains, when they come, are likely to be catastrophic. Higher temperatures also make bushfires worse.

    We are going to wreak and reap enormous damage simply so the coal, gas, and oil barons can fill their bulging pockets with even more loot.

    Morrison and his LNP creeps make me sick. And Labor is hardly better.

  6. paul walter

    Furthermore, global warming itself is not the only threat. There is also water and soil degradation, depletion of resources like fisheries and loss of biodiversity on land sea and air, misuse of arable land by agribusiness and clearance of wilderness and loss of food for the billions.

    The Pacific is the tip of the western attitude, the tip of a global iceberg of selfishness, greed and a lazy, fatalist lack of concern best shown in the current example of the Japanese wanting to flood it the great ocean with the muck from the Fukushima nuclear reactors.

  7. Zathras

    Ever since the Reagan/Thatcher era the Western World has been predominantly ruled by neo-Conservatives and their legacies have been mass privatisation, the widening of the income gap between rich and poor, rising right-wing extremism and religious policial influence, increased racial tension and scapegoating, some never-ending unwinnable wars and chaos in the Middle East, a few Stock Market “corrections”, accelerating environmental degradation and a massive global rise in refugees, just to name a few “achievements”.

    All of these have been the result of short-term gain and political opportunism with no long-term vision.
    Considering how politics now works, the developing legacy of increased global warming and ongoing self-interest should come as no surprise.

    It’s the overall political process that’s broken with no real alternative available and will take a significant global event to begin to change things.

  8. New England Cocky

    I look forward to the day the that Australian voters require their politicians to satisfy a pre-requisite of at least 12 months fishing off an island in the South Pacific, under local wages and conditions.

  9. Miriam English

    Paul, yes. The two greatest threats facing mankind are climate destabilisation and biodiversity loss. As you say though, there are many other lesser dangers — some that flow directly from those and some that are independent. It still amazes me that our dipshit politicians can still deny these.

    Zathras, very well said. Do you mind if I quote your words on my facebook page?

    I should remind everybody that even though it is easy to feel powerless and devoid of hope when faced with all this, the only way to move forward is with hope.

    We live in the least violent time in all human history. People today are less racist, less homophobic, better educated, more moral, less religious than ever before. The population problem has been solved without bloodletting or oppressive laws. We have at our fingertips the greatest knowledge resource ever, with a growing movement to freely share with others — from charities, to resources like Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, LibriVox, Sourceforge, and the vast OpenSource and Maker communities. And we ordinary people have power undreamed of in earlier times — we have citizen movements like GetUp, Avaaz, AllOut, Greenpeace, and many others, that hold our slimy politicians and many of the more wicked organisations to account. Adani has been trying to get their Carmichael mine going for nearly a decade (2010) and despite crowds of corrupt and gullible politicians eager to see it go foward they have been blocked every inch of the way by us — ordinary people in our great numbers. No bank will fund them and they are unable to get the insurance they need. That’s because we are the most powerful that ordinary folk have ever been.

    We can force our politicians to do the right thing, but even when they resist that, we are preventing them from doing the terrible things they attempt; increasingly, people are ceasing to listen to them. All around the world ordinary people are shifting to solar electric panels and solar water heating. Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, is (last I looked) leading the world in solar electric rooftop panels. Councils are approving wind farms and solar farms even in the most right-wing places. Businesses in great numbers are switching to renewable energy sources. Electric vehicles are coming in a great wave to take out one of our greatest sources of pollution. Every car manufacturer is scrambling to introduce low-cost electric vehicles after Elon Musk proved that there was an enormous market there. Closing coal and gas power stations will be the next biggest step, and that has already begun. Worldwide coal stations are being decommissioned faster than they are being built, and many new ones are simply not even getting off the drawing board. In Beijing recently, a proposed new coal-fired power station had stopped because of massive protests by citizens there. The biggest coal mining companies are going broke in record numbers as the bottom has dropped out of the market. Even with coal cheaper than ever there is little demand for it because it is still more expensive than wind of solar power.

    We’re still faced with scary problems — primarily climate destabilisation and biodiversity loss – but we are making some inroads against them and we are growing in power. It is now mostly a race against time. I have no doubt we will fix this… the worry is whether we can do so before the world is too damaged to recover much during our children’s lifetimes.

  10. johno

    Reminds me of the $444 million donated to the tiny great barrier reef foundation albeit a different context. Cash for the reef, now its cash for goodwill, only the pacific leaders are not rolling over like aussie voters.
    Oz can’t even look after its own neck of the woods re the pacific. Now there is academic Peter Ridd touring Qld telling sugarcane growers runoff is no threat to the reef.
    Sugarcane industry managers funded by grants from the Queensland government to help cane growers reduce pollution flowing onto the Great Barrier Reef are promoting lectures by a controversial scientist who argues farm runoff is no threat to the reef.

  11. Vikingduk

    Perhaps the rising seas are closer than we think. Up here in Noosa we were whacked by the remnants of a cyclone about 3 years ago, the wind, rain and the ocean monstered Noosa woods, the spit and the area known as dog beach. The erosion of this area has been 8 metres a year, currently down to 2 metres with no fix in sight. The main beach non existent at high tide, much sand pumping to replenish, the last attempt taken by the ocean. The ocean also monstered sunshine beach, waves hitting the last dune, the one with all the multi million dollar houses. Many areas have sea water over roads during king tides.

    Fortunately the council and the majority of residents support the declaration of a climate emergency and all attempts to become a cleaner, sustainable area. Give up on the smirking jerk and his gang of cunning stunts, the feds are fecked. Go hassle your council to act now.

  12. Miriam English

    Vikingduk, while beach loss can be the result of fiercer storms and associated problems, it is more likely a result of barriers further south, mostly from building on the coast, and construction of marinas and breakwaters. Sand moves mostly northward along the East Australian coast. If anything south of a beach blocks that movement then that beach will steadily lose sand as it gradually moves northward. (It can move southward, but I think this is unusual, as it depends upon wave direction — waves from the north-east move the sand south, but the more common waves from the south-east move the sand north.)

    Incidentally this long, ancient coast is the reason we have some of the best beaches in the world. When next you walk on the sand of the beach and it squeaks under your feet, marvel that this is because the grains are so ancient that they have had their rough edges worn off, causing them to make that sound.

  13. Vikingduk

    aWell aware of which way sand moves, always north, which doesn’t explain what is happening here. Miriam, to have any understanding of the changes here, you would need to understand the geography and view the areas I have mentioned. Whilst the bulk of main beach sand moves north, it doesn’t explain why copious sand was deposited at first point and little cove, since reclaimed by the ocean, and even changed the takeoff point and angle of waves. The dog beach area faces north in a “sheltered” bay.

    Possibly many of our current problems are due to the shifting of the river mouth 500 metres north, a decision taken in the Joh years to protect some expensive houses. So, from my point of view, having surfed here for years, walked the beaches in all weathers, and, I think a fairly ok knowledge of the ocean, we are seeing the beginning of a rising ocean, unstable, unusual weather, large waves at unexpected times. On and on it goes, changes happening faster than we think.

    All are personal observations of an area I love, have absolutely no scientific evidence, and could be a load of shit.

  14. Zathras

    Miriam English,
    Please feel free to quote me on anything. They are only words but it’s the thoughts that matter and I know I’m not alone

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