Pacific nations despair at Australia’s climate action stasis

THE head of the Pacific’s leading political grouping says Australia’s support for fossil fuels threatens the ‘wellbeing and potential’ of the region, revealing the true depth of diplomatic tension over Canberra’s climate policy inertia.

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s cabinet on Monday night prepared to officially dump emissions reduction targets from the Coalition’s energy plan, Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor delivered a damning speech that warned climate change had brought ‘truly desperate times’ to Australia’s most vulnerable neighbours.

Dame Meg told a conference in Canberra that while some saw Australia’s climate inaction as a political reality, “we cannot afford to have one or two of us acting in ways that place the wellbeing and potential of the Blue Pacific Continent at risk”.

Blue Pacific Continent is a term used to reflect the shared interests, responsibilities and collective action of Pacific nations.

Dame Meg is a Papua New Guinean lawyer and diplomat and former senior official at the World Bank.

Dame Meg Taylor
Dame Meg Taylor

She said individual Pacific nations have publicly reproached Australia for its stance on fossil fuels, but ‘it is time for such a conversation to take place within the forum family’ – suggesting Australia will come under more pressure over the issue at future meetings of Pacific nation leaders.

“It is absolutely essential that we work together to move the discussion with Australia to develop a pathway that will minimise the impacts of climate change for the future of all of our islands and our people – including Australia,” a transcript of her speech says.

Low-lying Pacific island nations including Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands would be among the first wiped from the map if sea level rise caused by climate change is not abated.

At last week’s Pacific Islands Forum at Nauru, attended by Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, leaders expressed private or veiled frustrations at Australia’s resistance to serious climate action, including its behind-the-scenes push to water down language on emissions pledges.

However, Dame Meg’s comments on Monday, made outside the diplomatic constraints of the forum, point to the extent to which Australia risks pariah status in the region over its climate stance.

In comments likely to raise eyebrows among Pacific leaders, Liberal Queensland senator Ian Macdonald on Monday accused them of swindling money from Australia to address the effects of rising sea levels.

Liberal Queensland senator Ian Macdonald
Liberal Queensland senator Ian Macdonald

“They might be Pacific islanders, but there’s no doubting their wisdom and their ability to extract a dollar where they see it,” Senator Macdonald told the Senate.

He acknowledged that climate change was occurring, but questioned whether humans were the cause.

“Once upon a time the Earth used to be covered in snow. Once upon a time there was a rainforest in the centre of Australia and clearly those things don’t happen anymore so the climate has obviously changed,” he said.

Internal Coalition dissent over the National Energy Guarantee, led by backbench climate skeptics, triggered last month’s leadership spill and The Australian newspaper on Saturday reported that Mr Morrison had declared the policy ‘dead’. The government will now focus on lowering electricity prices and improving reliability over emissions reduction.

Labor’s climate change and energy spokesman Mark Butler on Monday said electricity prices would ‘continue to skyrocket’ under the Morrison administration due to an uncertain investment climate and a lack of investment in renewable energy.

The business sector has called on the government to salvage the reliability component of the plan.

An Origin Energy spokeswoman on Monday said the government’s failure to produce a national energy and emissions policy was ‘disappointing’.

“We now have to focus on working constructively with governments to decide how best to deliver customers more affordable, reliable and sustainable energy outcomes,” she said.