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

Top climate scientist says leaders disenchanted with Australia’s promotion of coal and slowing down action on meeting Paris targets

Tuvalu, like other Pacific Island nations, faces massive economic, physical and social disruption and a threat to its very existence, from climate change.
Tuvalu, like other Pacific Island nations, faces massive economic, physical and social disruption and a threat to its very existence, due to climate change. Photograph: Peter Bennetts/AAP

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 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.

The prime minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, said the name of the country seeking qualifications “[started] with capital A”. Australia is the only country in the PIF beginning with A.

Several sources from the PIF forum have confirmed Australia's efforts to weaken the Boe Declaration. Vanuatu's minister for lands and natural resources Ralph Regenvanu said: “I was there, and can confirm this is true. And unfortunate.”

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.

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.”

Ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum, Xavier Matsutaro, the national climate change coordinator for Palau, said Australia’s relationship with the Pacific was “dysfunctional” and akin to an abusive spouse, saying Australia was also responsible for diluting the strength of previous regional declarations on climate change.

“Australia is a bit of an anomaly, because on the floor [of climate summits] they’re basically sometimes as far right as Trump in some of their views on climate change … but then on a regional basis they’ve actually given a lot of support to our region.”

Hare said Matsutaro spoke the “real and growing truth” about Pacific sentiment towards Australia.

“It reflects a major political and diplomatic crisis in the Pacific. If Pacific leaders lose faith in Australia, then they will turn to others, and this is already becoming a major source of discussion. Pacific leaders are not naive about the strings that will come with development from China, but they are beginning to feel abandoned.”