Climate change talks our 'last chance', say Pacific islands: 'This is not politics, it's survival'

The Pacific island nations whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels have issued a desperate plea to Australia and New Zealand, their energy-guzzling neighbours, and the wider world

Kathy Marks
Monday 07 September 2015 19:45
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Pacific island nations under threat from rising seas have warned that climate talks in Paris represent the “last chance” to save them from obliteration.

The warning came as a report castigated Australia and New Zealand for ignoring their small, impoverished neighbours’ calls for more robust action to cut carbon emissions. “What we are talking about is survival,” said Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati, a string of atolls barely 3ft (0.9m) above sea level.

“It’s not about economic development... it’s not politics. It’s survival,” he told a meeting of Pacific island leaders in Papua New Guinea.

Preparing for their annual Pacific Islands Forum summit this week, Pacific leaders implored the rest of the world to commit itself to limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-Industrial Revolution levels. “Anything over two degrees... [and] we go under water,” Tony de Brum, the Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, told Australia’s ABC radio recently.

As the wealthiest countries in the Pacific region, and the biggest per capita consumers of energy, Australia and New Zealand are regarded by their smaller neighbours as integral to the problems they are facing – and to a possible solution.

Last week, Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, castigated Australia for siding with “the coalition of the selfish – these industrialised nations which are putting the welfare of their carbon-polluting industries and their workers before our welfare and survival as Pacific islanders”.

The report by Oxfam Australia berated both countries for setting the bar low in relation to reducing carbon emissions. Australia is aiming to cut emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, while New Zealand is seeking a 30 per cent cut.

The two governments – led by conservatives Tony Abbott and John Key, who are expected to meet a chilly reception when they arrive in Papua New Guinea later this week – are “threatening the very survival of some Pacific nations”, Oxfam said.

The report also lambasted the two countries for failing to heed the “wake-up call” of Cyclone Pam, which devastated Vanuatu six months ago, and of catastrophic flooding in Kiribati and Tuvalu earlier this year.

The nations point to these more frequent and destructive storms – along with eroding coastlines and crops poisoned by seawater – as evidence that they are already suffering the impact of climate change. “We in the Pacific did not cause climate change, but we suffer because of it,” Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, said.

Mr Abbott has been widely criticised for dragging his feet on tackling climate change. Referring to the emissions reduction target, Mr de Brum said: “If the rest of the world followed Australia’s lead, the Great Barrier Reef would disappear. So would my country, and other vulnerable atoll nations on Australia’s doorstep.”

Last week, US President Barack Obama condemned political leaders who fail to take climate change seriously as “not fit to lead”.

In a statement following a pre-summit meeting, leaders of six island nations said the Paris talks were “our last chance to reach an outcome that must reverse the global warming pathway to ensure the future survival and existence of our nations, people and culture”.

As well as calling for a 1.5C limit on global temperature rises, island leaders want a moratorium on the building of new coal mines and the expansion of existing mines. Australia is one of the world’s biggest coal producers, and Mr Abbott last year lauded coal as “good for humanity”.

Kiribati and Tuvalu are considered particularly vulnerable to being engulfed by rising seas. Kiribati bought 7.7 square miles of land on Fiji last year, with a view to using it to grow crops or possibly even to evacuate the entire 102,000-strong population. It has also looked at the possibility of creating artificial islands to relocate its people.

The Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, told AFP last month that climate change was the “enemy No 1” for his country, which consists of nine coral atolls home to 11,000 people.

The small island nations want Australia and New Zealand to use their regional muscle to advocate for them on the world stage. Mr Tong said. “If they really are our friends, then they should be looking after our future as well.”

The chief executive of Oxfam Australia, Dr Helen Szoke, said the “two big brothers of the Pacific have largely ignored their neighbours’ calls for stronger emissions reduction targets and greater support to meet the challenges of climate change”.

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