Climate Change Safety Distractions
The hysteria in Canberra and Washington around the Sino-Solomon Security Pact showed, once again, how irrelevant the individual affairs of Pacific island states are in the chess game of geopolitics. The one thing that was clearly missing was the issue of climate change, near and dear to those whose lands are gradually flooded by sea level rise.
In a desperate attempt to understand why Honiara courted Chinese interest in defiance of Australian wishes, opposition Labor figures pointed the finger at climate change. Australia’s underhanded approach to such a vital issue was key in pushing the country into Beijing’s arms. According to Tanya Plibersek, the shadow education minister, Canberra had “left a vacuum” on the issue. Senator Penny Wong declared the obvious by noting that Pacific leaders had been less than impressed with the Morrison government’s indifference to climate change as the “number one economic and national problem”.
Canberra’s indifference, if not contempt, for this most existential concern has been demonstrated time and time again. In September 2015, banter broke out between Immigration Minister Peter Dutton who was waiting alongside Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Social Services Minister Scott Morrison. Abbott recalled the rather laid-back approach to punctuality that had taken place at a Pacific Islands Forum meeting the previous day in Papua New Guinea. “Time Means Nothing” noticed Dutton, “when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.”
In August 2019, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama already hinted that a turning point could well be on the way. After the Pacific Island Nations Summit held that month, Bainimarama Noted how Morrison had been “very insulting, very condescending”, behavior that had hardly been “good for relations” with Pacific island states. The Chinese, on the other hand, “don’t insult us”. They didn’t “go tell the world that we had given so much money to the Pacific Islands. They don’t do that. They are good people, certainly better than Morrison.
Michael McCormack, then Australian Deputy Prime Minister, had also come to the attention of the Fijian Prime Minister for unflattering comments. In comments published in the Guardian, Morrison’s deputy shed light on the environmental threats posed to states in the region. They would continue to survive, he suggested, “because many of their workers come here to pick our fruit.” These states “would also continue to survive, there is no doubt that they will continue to survive and they will continue to survive with significant aid from Australia”.
The comments drew criticism from Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister, who said the thing in the simplest terms, coal-loving politicians might understand. “If you’re a Pacific Islander and your home is going to be washed away by sea level rise caused by global warming, then that’s not a political question, it’s an existential question.”
Despite these remarks, the Morrison government remained deaf. In 2020, he was still hostile to the idea of engaging in net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Fourteen Pacific leaders responded by write an open letter to the prime minister. Composed of former presidents, prime ministers, archbishops and church leaders, the authors challenged Australia’s “current Paris Agreement emissions reduction target” as “one of the weakest among the rich countries”.
The letter condemned Canberra’s practice of using carry-over Kyoto Protocol credits “which cannot legally and should not be used to meet Australia’s 2030 Paris Agreement target”. As the region’s children and grandchildren face “unprecedented risks from climate change, now is the time to unite and work together to ensure their future safety and prosperity.”
The willful blindness to the region over climate security has persisted, with Dutton, now defense minister, categorical that Canberra had “a fantastic relationship with the Solomon Islands”. Using the ugly and infantilizing language of the “Pacific family”, which is presumably made up of nagging parents and obedient children, leaves no doubt about the identity of the children. “As part of the Pacific family, it is obvious that we want to work together and we want to solve the problems within this family, in our region.” Some issues are simply more important than others.
While Wong and Plibersek try to push through every critical comment on the Sino-Solomon Islands pact, it was only one aspect of the broader condescension the powers have shown to smaller states in the region. In all the turmoil and angst over the Honiara-Beijing deal and whether it would allow the stationing of Chinese military personnel, the Pacific Elders’ Voice had to reiterate “that the main threat to the security of the Pacific is climate change”.
The group also recalled the content of the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security: “We affirm that climate change remains the greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific and our commitments to the progress and implementation of the Paris Agreement.
For the elders, the great powers “including the United States, Japan and Australia, are developing strategies and policies for the ‘Indo-Pacific’ with little or no consultation with the Pacific island countries”. The Pacific region comprising states – known as Moana – faced “a set of unique challenges”. It is primarily these countries, not external powers, that must determine the security and future of the region. Accordingly, all nations were urged to “respect the sovereignty of all Pacific island countries and the right of Pacific peoples to develop and implement their own security strategies without undue coercion from outside “.
The observation is well reasoned and well intentioned; but those same outside powers, wide-eyed over nuclear-powered submarines, the establishment of rival military bases and geopolitical parade, have long ignored the sovereign wishes of those in the Pacific. It’s a bad habit that persists, even when the sea level rises.
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