The Guardian • Issue #2090

Tuvalu, elections and climate catastrophe

Tuvalu: reclaimed land.

Tuvalu: reclaimed land. Photo: Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project.

On 26 January, the people of Tuvalu went to the polls. On 26 February, the election of a new Prime Minister, Feleti Teo, was announced. Quite a delay. There was no contention. Of the 16 members of parliament, there was just one candidate. His election was delayed by a full month because of climate change. MPs could not travel from outlying islands. Dangerous seas made travel impossible.

Island states like Tuvalu, the canaries in the mine, are facing inundation. Countries like Australia, wring their hands, and force Tuvalu into an almost vassal-like status. Australia determines security issues for Tuvalu and, in return, offers to take a number of Tuvaluan climate refugees.

Australian attitudes towards Pacific states have long been atrocious. At the Pacific Islands Forum, held in Tuvalu in 2019, Australia ignored calls to phase out the use of coal. Its pattern of behaviour – the strong seeking to dominate the weak – marks out global capitalist politics. Aid is offered but altruism is never a motivation. Strings are inevitably attached.

The new Tuvaluan Prime Minister, Feleti Teo, is likely to maintain a position of support for the Falepili Union. It is that ‘union’ which binds his country so tightly to Australia. It is an issue that remains highly contentious, along with the question of whether or not Tuvalu might reconsider relations with Taiwan. Big picture geopolitical issues, however, have become a secondary consideration.

The most pressing issue for Tuvalu and its immediate neighbours remains the rising oceans. This is a tragedy being played out in full view of the world. Tuvalu is a victim of capitalism. The island state contributes nothing to climate change or the destruction of the planet. None of the 100 capitalist corporations that contribute to over 70 per cent of all emissions are to be found in Tuvalu.

The election and its disruption due to climate catastrophe, might be considered ‘inconvenient,’ but the continued existence of Pacific nations is urgent. Simon Stiell, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has recently spoken of that existential threat and the real likelihood that Australia will need to accommodate entire populations of climate refugees if the capitalist states do not seriously address the issues and meet emissions targets.

Stiell made the point that if G20 nations, which contribute 80 per cent of global emissions and represent 85 per cent of global GDP, do not get things sorted and quickly, then Australia’s economy and agricultural capacity would all but be destroyed.

“Just to give you a very practical example, right here in Australia the Murray Darling food basin will be decimated. Folks think food prices at the checkout are bad now. They ain’t seen nothing yet.”

He went on to describe how “entire island nations neighbouring Australia will also be wiped out, and it is Australia which will be the front and centre in resettling entire national populations. My point is that the logic is unassailable, a bold domestic climate forward economic reform agenda in Australia [is necessary] both to seize the huge opportunities, but also to avoid climate carnage.”

The logic is indeed “unassailable” but Stiell missed an obvious point. Governments are component parts of global capitalism, and have been loath to take capitalism to task. Doing that would mean a fundamental change in the economic and political order. This does not mean that remedial actions aren’t needed but a move to a fundamental shift in capitalist thinking shows no sign of becoming reality.

While optimistic statements are made and positive signs are evident, especially from the European Union, the trajectory remains poor. AS UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently put it, “today’s emissions gap is more like an emissions canyon. To close this canyon, we need to make 2024 the year of exponential climate action.”

Added to this is the awful fact that emissions from armies are almost never included in any figures. The US military, for example, is the biggest single global consumer of oil. Every year the Pentagon’s greenhouse gas emissions add up to more than 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. If the US military was a nation state, it would be the 47th largest emitter in the world. But these figures are not counted.

Political will and economic focus can change things. There is a dollars and cents figure that has been applied to resolving the climate crisis. It was estimated in 2020 that the the total and complete cost of cleaning up the mess and repairing the planet would be $50 trillion by 2050. Governments, so much a part of the capitalist system, are unlikely to be directly funding this, and it is extremely unlikely that individual capitalist corporations will be willingly opening their wallets any time soon. $50 trillion is a lot of money. It’s a figure that is difficult to imagine. The annual global military budget has now risen to $2.2 trillion. What is needed is less than the total outlay for weaponry. The money is there but in the wrong hands. At present there is $454 trillion in accumulated wealth. So, if governments won’t find the funds and capitalism won’t cooperate, what are we to do?

Yes, good actions are being taken by many governments. There are signs that capitalists are seeing new ways of extracting profit that might allow the planet to survive, but Guterres’ warning remains.

That warning and Simon Stiell’s appraisal, has a special meaning for Australia and its Pacific neighbours. Pacific populations don’t want to become refugee populations in Australia. Australia doesn’t want to see its agricultural base wiped out by climate change. All of us want a future. When an election result for a nation of just 11,000 people cannot be finalised because climate disruption meant boats couldn’t get from one island to another, then all bets are off. It is time for a change.

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