At the Pacific Island Forum held in Tuvalu last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not budge from his conservative position on climate change. Eighteen heads of states representing their island nations did their utmost to convey the immediate threat posed by the climate crisis, but were ultimately unsuccessful in their attempt to have Morrison sign the Tuvalu Declaration. Instead, following much tense discussion, the Kainaku II Declaration was signed by all in attendance, which included a range of watered down terms relating to coal use and emissions reduction.
Emotions ran high at the meeting, as it became clear that there was a difference in perspective surrounding the management of the environment. Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, was one of many impassioned heads of state that tried to verbalise the necessity to proactively address policy in this respect, “You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia, I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.” For Morrison, the decision to reject the tenants of the Tuvalu Declaration was in defense of Australia’s fossil fuel dependent economy, as he stated, “I’m accountable to the Australian people, that’s who I’m accountable for.”
The tangible animosity that exists between Australia and its Pacific neighbours in relation to the climate and the economy is born out of a fundamentally different interpretation of the threat climate change poses. Scott Morrison was elected on a platform of economic stability, and has repeatedly played down what he believes to be exaggerated estimates of man-made emissions on the earth. In 2017, it was Morrison who famously entered parliament with a lump of coal in hand, taunting the opposition’s commitment to renewable energy. “Don’t be afraid, it won’t hurt you, it’s coal,” said then Treasurer Morrison, passing the black rock to his visibly amused fellow backbenchers. This position could not be any further removed from that of the leaders of the Pacific island nations, whose future depends upon developed nations such as Australia abandoning fossil fuel industries such as coal mining. With climate change the greatest threat to their national security, regional initiatives such as the Smaller Island States have united in their attempts to encourage countries such as Australia to curb their emissions output and to phase out the use of coal.
Whilst the climate crisis remains a global issue, its impact is not evenly distributed, with the Pacific disproportionately affected. Warmer waters have already devastated fisheries and coral reefs, which are used as an immediate resource in local communities. The Solomon Islands has experienced several of its inhabitable islands lost due to rising sea levels. Similarly the Marshall Islands, which is home to more than 50,000 inhabitants, is expected to be completely submerged by 2030. For these reasons and more, addressing climate change is for Pacific island nations a matter of national security, as it poses an immediate threat to the lives of so many of the world’s island and coastal inhabitants.
By ignoring the pleas of the leaders at the Pacific Island Forum to protect the region from the immediate threat posed by the climate crisis, the Australian Government has sent a clear message: your security is not a priority of ours. Australia has always considered itself the Pacific’s greatest ally. Just last year, the Morrison government released a statement describing the steps being taken to ‘Strengthening Australia’s commitment to Pacific.’ The media release contains various investments strategies and projects, in an attempt to, “take our (Australia’s) engagement in the region to a new level.” But with no mention of economic restructuring or commitment to environmental protection, it is clear that this statement, much like the Kainaki II Declaration negotiated by Morrison at the forum, falls short of addressing the Pacific’s most pressing concern. For Australia, this oversight could mean the deterioration of a string of significant relations in the region. For the people of the Pacific, the implications are more immediate and concerning, for as long as their large southern neighbour prioritises coal over their collective security, the future remains grim and uncertain.
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