- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #1976
The small, low-lying Pacific islands are often described as “the canary in the coalmine.” The very existence and lives of their people are threatened by climate change. According to the Sixth Assessment Report (6AR) by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), they could be swallowed up by rising oceans this century if action to halt climate change is not stepped up.
Kosi Latu, Director-General of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), told the ABC’s 7.30 Report: “For us in the Pacific islands’ region, the Report spells out shocking consequences starting with us first, if the world fails to listen to the warnings in the report. Contributing to less than one per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gases, our Pacific islands are on the frontline, and amongst the most vulnerable, to the impacts of climate change.”
“The first volume of the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC tells us the changes we are seeing today, are unprecedented over thousands to millions of years confirming that temperatures are higher than they have ever been in the last 125,000 years.
“This is our last chance, all of us must act now. We must call upon humanity, we must have the political will to act – everyone must make the changes needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today,” Latu urged.
“The grave risks of exceeding 1.5 ˚C above pre-industrial levels is spelt out in the Report – every additional increment of global warming increases changes in extremes. This includes the intensity and frequency of hot extremes, heatwaves, heavy precipitation, as well as droughts in some regions.”
According to the AR6, what were once in one-hundred-year events will become once a year and more extreme events. On average, the world has already warmed by 1.1ºC since the pre-industrial era and sea levels risen by twenty centimetres due to human activity. If global warming is not limited to 1.5ºC. sea levels could rise by at least three metres. Deep and sustained emission reductions are required now to save humanity.
CLIMATE CHANGE HERE NOW
The AR6 does not mince words about the grim future that small Pacific islands face.
In its regional coverage it noted that coastlines are already receding, fresh water supplies are being polluted, fishing is affected by warming seas, and farming by climate change. The present drying trends will likely continue in the coming decades. Fewer but more intense tropical cyclones are projected. Small islands have warmed over the period of instrumental records. Temperature increases in the 21st century will further increase heat stress in these regions.
Continued relative sea level rise is very likely in the ocean around small islands and, along with storm surges and waves, will exacerbate coastal inundation with the potential to increase saltwater intrusion into aquifers. Shoreline retreat is projected along sandy coasts of most small islands.
PM SHRUGS OFF PLEAS
For decades the Pacific Islands have pleaded with the rest of the world to act. At the Pacific Island Forum held earlier this month, Pacific Forum Chair, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said: “Our children and grandchildren – those who are poised to face the worst consequences of inaction – will not and should not – forgive our continued inaction.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison generated headlines in the region by eating during the official opening of Pacific Leaders’ meeting. Such conduct is seen as extremely rude in many Pacific cultures. It is not the first time he has caused a stir or insulted Leaders.
At the Pacific Island Forum Leaders’ meeting in August 2019, Morrison’s response their pleas for Australia to reduce emissions was to put $500mil on the table – money transferred from another part of the aid budget – for adaptation and mitigation. Tuvalu’s Prime Minster Enele Sopoaga, Forum Chair, said: “No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse to not to do the right thing, which is to cut down on your emissions, including not opening your coalmines. That is the thing that we want to see.”
Australia is the largest economy of the Pacific Island Forum. Its other members are: Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
There is considerable anger over the proposed opening of the Adani mine in the Pacific region. Coal mines should be closing and replaced with a just transition to renewables. (See Guardian #1975, UN IPCC Report: Australia’s role”) Small island states require assistance with mitigation, adaptation, renewables as well as Australia to cut its emissions.
Climate change is already having a serious impact on their economies, food (fishing and agriculture), fresh water sources, health, and infrastructure. More extreme and frequent weather events are occurring as sea levels rise; shorelines are eroded; fresh water sources are polluted; and oceans are becoming acidified and polluted with plastics and other material from industrialised nations. Rates of sea level rise on some islands are four times greater than the global average.
“OUR PACIFIC FAMILY”
Australia, as a wealthy economy in the region, has a specific responsibility to its neighbours. Its failure to tackle climate change, despite the many pleas of Pacific Island leaders for it to do so, makes a mockery of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s references to “our Pacific family.”
A family implies responsibility and care for one another. The government shows none of these to its poor and struggling neighbours, some of whom have already seen islands disappear under water.
Australia, the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, has a responsibility to assist Pacific Islands. First and foremost is the closure of fossil fuel sector. That does not mean transferring the focus from coal to liquid gas. It means a rapid and just transition to renewables. Secondly, it should be providing all the technological and financial support the islands require for mitigation and adaptation, including development of renewable energy.
Australia must commit to sustainable development, eradicate poverty, and reduce inequalities in the region while pursuing the goal of zero net emissions or even negative emissions by 2050 at the latest but preferably by 2030. The next ten years are critical in preventing warming above 1.5ºC. This target is imperative to save these islands and prevent them becoming completely uninhabitable.
Already, Tuvalu is in negotiations with the UN about the relocation of its population.
The AR6 noted that the “consideration of ethics and equity can help address the uneven distribution of adverse impacts associated with 1.5°C and higher levels of global warming, as well as those from mitigation and adaptation, particularly for poor and disadvantaged populations, in all societies.”
“Mitigation and adaptation consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C are underpinned by enabling conditions, assessed in this Report across the geophysical, environmental-ecological, technological, economic, socio-cultural, and institutional dimensions of feasibility. Strengthened multilevel governance, institutional capacity, policy instruments, technological innovation and transfer and mobilisation of finance, and changes in human behaviour and lifestyles are enabling conditions that enhance the feasibility of mitigation and adaptation options for 1.5°C-consistent systems transitions.”
Australia has a responsibility to the small Pacific islands in the region to assist them with mitigation and adaptation, and where this becomes impossible to welcome their people to our shores. So far the government has acted irresponsibly and turned its back on our neighbours.
NOT GOOD NEIGHBOURS
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and United Nations’ former climate envoy recently joined Leigh Sales to discuss the AR6 on the 7.30 Report. “Well, I am very aware of the heartbreak at the moment in the Pacific Islands. I have been there.
“I have been to Fiji, I have been to Samoa, I have been to the meeting of Pacific nations without Australia and New Zealand, the forum that they have on their own, when I was special envoy of the Secretary-General on climate change and I heard at that time a kind of anger but now it is quite clear that in the neighbourhood of Australia, you are regarded as not being good neighbours to the Pacific Islands because of the dependency still on fossil fuel.”
When asked “What will be the effect on Australia if it doesn’t transition away from fossil fuel?” Robinson responded: “I think it will become a kind of pariah to be honest because this is so serious and what I am interested in, of course, is the climate justice dimensions because Australia has had a high dependency on fossil fuel and a lot of workers in fossil fuel, it is going to need a really significant, just transition and a significant just transition fund.
“The European Union, as you know, recently established a just transition fund and a just transition mechanism for particularly coal workers in Poland and elsewhere and other countries are also, countries themselves are stepping up […] the approach towards the Pacific Islands is also part of a climate justice by Australia.
“You cannot have that conduct [towards] neighbours that is causing such existential worry for Pacific Islanders.”