Low-lying states and coastal communities around the world are facing the spectre of long-term disappearance due to sea level change. The stakes are existential. They are having to plan for the evacuation of their citizenry and the potential loss of land territory with associated legal rights over their territorial seas and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).
In a recent meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Tuvalu, an island of some 11,000 people with a land territory of ten square miles (making it one of the smallest countries in the world), Australia was identified as an unwelcome outlier. The meeting was described as very difficult. The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, was resistant to embracing any policy commitments that addressed coal-fired power stations and coal mining. Unlike Tuvalu, the coal mining industry is a significant player in the Australian economy and over 75 per cent of its coal is exported to East Asian markets, mainly China.
Established in 1971 with 18 members, the PIF is designed to bring regional leaders together for the purpose of identifying areas of co-operation. In her statement to the PIF, secretary general Dame Meg Taylor reminded attendees why Tuvalu was an ideal place to meet. The national leaders were greeted by children, as she noted, ‘submerged in water surrounding a model of their sinking islands with their call to “Save Tuvalu, save the world”.’ A year earlier, PIF leaders endorsed the Boe Declaration on Regional Security. The Declaration articulated the Pacific Island leaders’ collective desire to secure ‘peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity’. Climate security was identified as the number one priority followed by human security and humanitarian assistance.
Morrison drew the ire of other Pacific Island leaders by insisting that the 2019 communiqué of the PIF was free from references to the coal industry. Australia is supposed to reduce cumulative emissions to 28 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030. Complicating matters further is that Australia wants to use so-called Kyoto-era carbon credits to water down its commitment to 15 per cent.
The 2019 Nadi Bay Declaration on the Climate Change Crisis in the Pacific is clear that others cannot afford to wait for the emergence of a green-friendly Australia. The Fijian government has set out its vision for achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The country’s climate change minister, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, has spoken about introducing a new carbon credit scheme, tough restrictions on plastics, and committing the country to turning 30 per cent of its EEZ into a marine protected area by 2030. Fiji has also proposed a decade-long moratorium on seabed mining in the Pacific Ocean from 2020 to 2030. More dramatically, the relocation of villages and their communities will continue. Some villages have simply been abandoned due to repeated flooding, storm surges and rising sea levels.
For internally displaced peoples, their basic needs include not just housing and productive land but also physical infrastructure and communal well-being. Relocation can be a painful experience, especially if some parts of the original village can endure due to being located on higher ground. While elevation can provide refuge up to a point, there is always the danger that landslides will undermine that sense of physical security. Coastal communities tend to be rooted in fishing-based economies and moving inland might well severe that link to a long-standing industry and source of communal identity and pride.
A recent Fijian government/World Bank report on ‘Making Fiji climate resilient’ estimated that at least $4.5billion would need to be spent on climate crisis adaption. This is a huge amount and the number of villages affected by climate change (including more severe storms and cyclones, which can and do cause damage running into hundreds of millions of US dollars) could number over 300. Simply building new infrastructure, including storm-resistant homes, will be demanding.
Fiji and other Pacific Island states are the ground zero for 21st century climate emergencies. Their contribution to the world’s total carbon emission is tiny. Regional geopolitics matters and Australia is dominant. It has been a colonising power, a major aid donor and has used islands such as Nauru as immigration detention centres. The Australian-Pacific regional aid programme will offer around US$225million in 2019 and 2020 to 16 countries. Australia gives Fiji around US$30-35million per year in overseas aid. It is the dominant donor with the US, Japan and China as notable others. Australia wants to be the ‘partner of choice’ and dependency on aid assistance clearly shapes the policy options of others. But Papua New Guinea and Fiji are among the largest local recipients of Chinese aid and six other Pacific Ocean islands are beneficiaries.
A future Australia could do something quite radical. It could simply pledge to offer the smallest and most vulnerable communities in islands such as Tuvalu a refuge in Australia. Resilience is hard if you are submerged.
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