Australia calls for climate leadership, won’t show it

September 13, 2013
Seawater breaks through the sea walls on Marshall Islands.

Australia’s recent federal election should be remembered as the election that forgot about climate change. Serious action to address climate change was a non-issue for the two big parties and the mainstream media, despite the country experiencing its second-warmest August, second-warmest winter and warmest 12-month period on record.

But just two days before the September 7 poll, the Australian government quietly signed, together with 14 other Pacific nations, the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership. The nations said: “Climate change has arrived ... We commit to be climate leaders.”

The declaration was named after the capital city of the Marshall Islands, which hosted the 44th Pacific Island Forum Leader’s meeting. Like other small and poor Pacific island nations, the Marshall Islands is already dealing with dire climate change-induced disasters, which threaten the nation’s very existence.

In June, seawater broke through the sea walls that surround Majuro city. Many homes in the south of the city were flooded, as was the city’s airport. Locals say sea-level rise is already noticeably contributing to rapid coastline erosion and the contamination of freshwater wells by seawater. Future sea-level rises will also make future floods bigger and more intense.

June’s flood disaster coincided with a devastating drought that affected 15 atolls in the north of the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands government declared a state of emergency in April due to the drought, which had wiped out crops and forced islanders to ration scant drinking water supplies.

In June, Marshall Islands minister Tony de Brum said of the double emergency: “From drought to deluge, my people are suffering an escalating climate crisis. Thousands of my people in the north are thirsty and hungry, while thousands of us here in the south are now drenched in seawater. As I said to the US emergency team this morning, ‘welcome to climate change.’”

De Brum praised the international relief efforts then underway, but also said: “Aid will not stop floods, droughts and disease from becoming the new norm. As we have said for years, prevention is far better than cure. What we need is a new wave of climate leadership.”

This is the context in which the Marshall Islands proposed the Majuro Declaration to the Pacific Island Forum Leaders meeting on September 5. The declaration said climate change “is the greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific”.

It pointed to the “overwhelming scientific consensus” that carbon pollution is to blame for “the sharp rise in average global temperatures over the past century, the alarming acidification of our oceans, the rapid loss of polar sea-ice, sea level rise, and the striking incidence of more frequent and extreme weather events all over the world.”

The declaration noted that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases had recently passed 400 parts per million, a “historic threshold” that meant “the world [has] entered a new danger zone”.

The 15 governments also confirmed “the responsibility of all to act to urgently reduce and phase down greenhouse gas pollution in order to avert a climate crisis for present and future generations”.

Although it voted for the Majuro Declaration, there no sign the Australian government intends to take its commitment seriously. The former Labor government and the new Coalition government share the same low climate ambition — to cut Australia’s emissions by just 5% below 2000 levels by 2020.

Until its election defeat, Labor’s main policy to make the 5% cut was its carbon price scheme. But the scheme was unlikely to achieve even this disastrously small goal because it was to join Europe’s emissions trading scheme, which has all but collapsed and remains mired in crisis.

The Coalition government is also unlikely to meet the 5% target. New Prime Minister Tony Abbott has pledged to scrap the carbon price and give more public subsidies to polluters, supposedly to encourage emissions cuts. Other Coalition climate policies include planting trees and vague promises to capture more carbon in soils.

Before the election, Abbott confirmed that the Coalition’s “direct action” policy may indeed fall short of the 5% target, but he ruled out any more climate spending regardless.

Even if — against the odds — Australia’s tiny 5% by 2020 target was met, it would make little difference. British climate scientist Kevin Anderson says industrialised countries must make emissions cuts of about 10% each year “to even stay within an outside chance of avoiding dangerous climate change”.

Australia may have signed the Majuro Declaration, but it won’t honour it. The climate policy of past and current Australian governments is really a policy for allowing low-lying nations such as the Marshall Islands to be submerged by rising tides.

A new wave of climate leadership will have to be found elsewhere, emerging from the grassroots movements for social change and climate justice.

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