No joke: Pacific outrage at climate inaction

Rising sea levels in Kiribati.

The tasteless joking between immigration minister Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Tony Abbott about the threat of rising sea levels to Pacific Islands — caught on a microphone after the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) meeting — sums up the Australian government's attitude to the victims of its climate inaction.

The 46th PIF leaders' meeting in Port Moresby ended without reaching agreement on a united position to take to the Paris climate summit later this year. Pacific Island leaders could not convince Australia and New Zealand to agree on more ambitious targets.

Pacific Island leaders were already pessimistic about being able to convince Australian PM Tony Abbott and New Zealand PM John Key to adopt the target of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

The 1.5 degree target had already been agreed to in the Suva Declaration, which was signed at the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) the previous week. The rival PIDF grouping includes Pacific island states, but excludes Australia and New Zealand, which are much richer than their small island neighbours, and use this to influence the PIF.

After signing the declaration, Fijian PM Frank Bainimarama said: “Our disappointment and frustration at the world’s failure to act runs through this entire document. We in the Pacific tend to speak softly. It is in our nature. But on this issue, we needed to cry out with one voice, enough is enough. And we have. And it is all the more powerful for that.”

Bainimarama said that Australia should abandon “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 September 7 Independent reported.

Bainimarama boycotted the PIF meeting. The September 10 Sydney Morning Herald reported that he said this was due to “the refusal of Australia and New Zealand to step back and allow the Pacific island nations to determine their own futures free from outside interference.”

After attending the PIDF meeting, Kiribati President Anote Tong even suggested smaller states might leave the PIF, or Australia and New Zealand would be asked to do so if they could not come to a satisfactory agreement.

Before heading into the meeting, Abbott reiterated support for the Lima target of 2 degrees. “I think I have got a very good story to tell on climate change to tell the Pacific Islands Forum,” he said. “I think Pacific leaders should be reassured by the seriousness with which Australia is approaching this issue.”

But Greens Senator Larissa Waters replied: “If he genuinely believes that we have a good story to tell, he has never met science and clearly has no interest in it. The targets that the Prime Minister announced are less than half what we need to do to keep global warming to 2 degrees or less … We are a wealthy nation and we could actually be supporting and helping our neighbours. In fact we're cutting foreign aid, ignoring climate change, and we're effectively condemning those nations to complete inundation,” the SMH said.

The Abbott government previously announced a carbon emissions reduction target of 26% to 28% on 2005 levels by 2030. New Zealand’s target is a cut of 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. These targets have been condemned as grossly inadequate, especially considering that Australia is the highest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita among developed countries. In contrast, the US had promised cuts of about 41%, the European Union of 34%, and Canada of 30%. The average of developed nation emission reductions is about 36%.

Australia's Climate Change Authority recommends a 45% to 63% cut on 2005 levels by 2030.

The chief executive of the Climate Institute, John Connor, said Australia's target would be “pathetically inadequate,” the August 11 Guardian said.

“If other countries took the same approach as the government announced today, the world would warm by 3-4C.”

After the meeting, Abbott proudly confirmed the meeting resolved no “additional commitments when it comes to climate change”.

Tong said: “It’s not the best outcome we would have liked. At this point in time we’d like to be able to sit down and at least agree on a range of numbers … this is the way we have come out of this meeting.”

Tong expressed frustration at the failure of Australia and New Zealand to understand the plight of their smaller Pacific neighbours. “I understand what's being said, that if they agree to those reductions in emissions, then it would hurt their industries and it would hurt their … standard of living,” he said.

“But what I'm perhaps failing to communicate across is that while it will affect their standard of living, for us, it will affect the future of our people.”

Pacific Island nations being wiped out off the map is literally a joke to Australian government ministers. This was revealed on September 11 when, prior to a meeting with ethnic communities councils, Abbott and Dutton failed to notice that the TV microphones had already been set up and were recorded having a racist chortle on the subject.

After the ministers made derogatory comments about the supposed unpunctuality of ethnic Australians, Cape York Aboriginal people and Papua New Guineans, while smugly expressing satisfaction at the PIF meeting's outcome, Dutton quipped: “Time doesn't mean anything when you're about to have water lapping at your door.”

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