Inside Story

How to annoy the neighbours

With the Pacific Islands Forum meeting soon in Port Moresby, many island leaders are expressing frustration at Australia’s climate policies, writes Nic Maclellan

Nic Maclellan 28 August 2015 2084 words

Divergences: Fiji’s minister for women, children and poverty alleviation, Rosy Akbar, speaks about the impact of climate change on women in the Pacific at a conference hosted in Beijing earlier this year by the Pacific Islands Forum. J. Carrier/UN Women

Members of the Pacific Islands Forum have had their differences over the years, but island leaders are usually reluctant to wash the dirty linen in public. Forging agreement between Australia, New Zealand and fourteen small island developing states inevitably involves compromises, and Forum communiqués have often used bland wording to placate the sensibilities of Australian and New Zealand prime ministers on trade, decolonisation and nuclear testing. The fact that Canberra and Wellington fund much of the Forum’s budget has played no small part in this diplomatic balancing act.

Today, however, it’s getting harder and harder to reconcile widely divergent policies over climate change. This year’s Forum meeting, in Port Moresby on 7–10 September, comes just a few months before negotiations in Paris to finalise a global agreement on climate change. Many fear the Australian delegation will block key elements of the climate agenda advanced by island nations, leading to a policy consensus with little substance.

When Fiji’s prime minister Voreqe Bainimarama announced in May that he wouldn’t be attending the Port Moresby meeting, he highlighted the climate-policy gap. “As we see it, Australia and New Zealand have been put to the test on climate change and been found wanting,” he said. “It should be no surprise that we have formed the view that at the very least, their position as full members of our island nation Forum needs to be questioned, re-examined and redefined. They simply do not represent our interests as we face this critical matter of survival.”

In every major speech this year, Bainimarama has beaten the climate drum. At the June summit of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, he told the assembled leaders, “We have less than six months to get this crisis on the global agenda. I urge you all to put it at the top of your own agendas and make your voices heard. Loudly.”

The Australian government’s engagement with the Forum in recent years has been patchy. Prime minister Tony Abbott didn’t attend last year’s leaders’ meeting in Palau, leaving his deputy Warren Truss to wave the Australian flag. Not surprisingly, Abbott’s frequent pronouncements on climate change have managed to annoy many of his island counterparts.

Australia and Canada’s decision in 2013 not to contribute to the Green Climate Fund angered Pacific countries that rely on finance to fund adaptation and technology transfer. The fact the announcement was made at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – a gathering that includes many of the least-developed countries, small island states and sub-Saharan African nations on the climate frontline – only made matters worse.

At a meeting with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper in June 2014, Abbott proposed an alliance to resist emissions trading schemes. Marshall Islands president Christopher Loeak said such an alliance would isolate Australia from its Pacific neighbours. “I’m very concerned that the prime minister is setting the wrong tone in what needs to be a very determined effort to tackle climate change,” he said, and went on to describe Abbott’s efforts as “a further indication that Australia is isolating itself on this issue.”

The same concern was raised a year ago when Samoa hosted the third global conference on small island development states. Integrating environment and development has been a central part of the island agenda since this summit was first held in Barbados in 1994. In the lead-up to the September 2014 summit, host prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi was forthright about Australia’s lack of initiative on climate policy.

“We do hope Australia’s current leadership could look at the Pacific islands as a special case in terms of climate change,” he said. “In saying that, I am aware of the extreme preoccupation of the present leadership with budget savings. Australia and New Zealand are members of the Pacific Islands Forum and the membership there was especially important, because being the biggest member countries in the only consolidated grouping of islands in the Pacific, they should do more.”

The communiqué of the conference, known as the SAMOA Pathway, recognised that “sea-level rise and other adverse impacts of climate change continue to pose a significant risk to small island developing states and their efforts to achieve sustainable development and, for many, represent the gravest of threats to their survival and viability, including, for some, through the loss of territory.”

The following month, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon hosted the UN Climate Summit to advance the climate negotiations. More than 120 world leaders attended, but the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand were not among them (even though Tony Abbott had been in New York the day before).

Once again, island leaders expressed their concern over Australia’s priorities. “Probably one of the most frustrating events of the past year for Pacific islanders is Australia’s strange behaviour when it comes to climate change,” Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum said at the time. “It just does not make sense, it goes against the grain of the world.” He added, “Not only is Australia our big brother down south, Australia is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum and Australia is a Pacific island, a big island, but a Pacific island. It must recognise that it has a responsibility. The problems that have befallen the smaller countries are also Australia’s problems.”

With climate financing a central pillar of the global negotiations, the November 2014 G20 meeting in Brisbane highlighted Canada and Australia’s isolation. With the United States contributing US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, and Britain, Germany and France each adding another billion, Julie Bishop finally buckled at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, talks in Lima. The foreign minister announced a contribution to the fund of US$165 million over four years. Overall, Canberra is offering a sum well below the $2 billion of public and private climate funding required each year to meet Australia’s fair share of global pledges.

For years, Marshall Islander Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner has used poetry to translate the jargon of climate policy into a call to action.

From her poem “Tell Them” to “Dear Matafele Peinem” – her presentation to the opening of the 2014 UN Climate Summit – her lyrics highlight islander concerns over government inaction. Her latest poem is “2 degrees”:

At a climate change conference
a colleague tells me 2 degrees
is an estimate
I tell him for my islands 2 degrees
is a gamble
at 2 degrees my islands, the Marshall Islands
will already be under water
this is why our leaders push
for 1.5

Two degrees is the compromise forged between the OECD and rapidly industrialising countries at the 2010 UNFCCC summit in Cancun. Governments agreed on the long-term goal of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above preindustrial levels.

But this consensus on 2°C is a political, not a scientific, measure of safe climate boundaries. As climate analyst David Spratt has noted, “In reality, 2°C is the boundary between dangerous and very dangerous climate change and 1°C warmer than human civilisation has ever experienced.”

During the UNFCCC negotiations, which have been under way since 1992, Pacific governments have worked through the Alliance of Small Island States, a grouping of 44 island and coastal states that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Reflecting the findings of a range of scientific studies, they have called for tougher targets than 2°C, requiring more urgent and extensive emissions reductions. At climate talks in Bonn in June, the alliance called for a long-term temperature goal of “below 1.5°C,” to be included in any agreement signed in Paris this year.

When they meet without Australia and New Zealand in the room, Pacific leaders constantly reiterate their support for the alliance’s policies on emissions reductions, climate financing and technology transfer. They also endorse the Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage, a scheme to address the existing damage to water supply, agriculture and infrastructure caused by past greenhouse gas emissions and the failure to fund the necessary adaptation.

In July this year, the Polynesian Leaders Group issued the Taputapuatea Declaration on Climate Change. Island leaders from Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Cook Islands, Niue and French Polynesia repeated positions long advanced by other small island developing states, to “deal with the adverse effects of climate change by limiting global warming below 1.5°C and having access to tools and means to adapt to the adverse impacts caused by climate change.” The declaration highlights “that loss and damage is a critical element for building resilience against climate change” and that this should be “reflected in the legally binding agreement.”

Canberra doesn’t agree. Throughout this year, Australian officials have worked with other industrialised nations to systematically challenge positions on loss and damage advanced by the small states alliance during climate negotiations.

Tony Abbott has argued that Australia’s “budget repair” will provide the revenue for ongoing engagement with the region to address climate change. But regional concern over climate policy goes beyond the current conservative backlash, which saw the abolition of Australia’s emissions trading scheme. Australia’s role as a major exporter of fossil fuel energy has led to the “carbon capture” of successive governments, affecting its relationship with other members of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Over the last two months, Australia, New Zealand and other countries have announced targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after 2020. These targets, known as the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs, are the basis for negotiation of an agreement at the next UNFCCC summit in Paris.

The Key government in New Zealand announced plans to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Australia’s INDC submission to the United Nations includes an even less ambitious target of greenhouse gas emissions: 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Island leaders joined an chorus of disapproval. Marshall Islands Foreign Minister de Brum said, “Australia’s weak target is another serious blow to its reputation. As with Prime Minister Abbott’s attempt to ignore climate change when hosting the G20 last year, this will send a serious shudder through the Pacific and raise concern amongst its closest allies, including the United States and Europe.”

De Brum went on: “This seems to be another example of Australian exceptionalism when it comes to tackling the biggest economic, environmental and security challenge of the twenty-first century. If the rest of the world followed Australia’s lead, the Great Barrier Reef would disappear. So would my country and the other vulnerable atoll nations on Australia’s doorstep.”

Based on current INDC pledges, global emissions are on a path to 3 or 4 degrees of warming, a catastrophic failure of ambition that will devastate small island developing states – and the rest of us.

In March, foreign minister Julie Bishop proudly highlighted Australia’s aid response to Cyclone Pam, which devastated Vanuatu and Tuvalu. But beyond the post-disaster hype, successive Australian governments have damaged the institutions that contribute to our engagement with the islands region on climate and disasters. Cutbacks to funding and staffing have reduced the capacity of the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology – which have partnered with Pacific meteorologists on cyclone research – as well as Radio Australia, a vital service that provides cyclone warnings to outlying islands.

The abandonment of a bipartisan target for Official Development Assistance has led to proposed cuts of $11.7 billion from Australia’s aid budget over four years, restricting the ability to pledge substantial climate funding. While aid cuts in this year’s budget focused on Africa and Asia, the Pacific islands will not be spared in next year’s budget, with another billion dollars to be slashed.

Under its current secretary-general, Dame Meg Taylor of Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Islands Forum is trying to address the global challenge of sustainable development, promoting a new Framework on Pacific Regionalism and improvements to the operations of the Forum Secretariat in Suva. But differences over climate policy threaten that momentum, and will reinforce the growing debate over whether the region might be better served by an “islands-only” Forum. •