“Any leader of any country who believes that there is no climate change, I think he ought to be taken to mental confinement. He is utterly stupid”, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said on August 31.
These were off-the-cuff remarks as Tuilaepa's speech to the Lowy Institute, given ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Nauru, was customarily diplomatic. But he could have been a lot harsher, especially considering Australia's long-standing bipartisan paternalistic and colonial approach to the Pacific Island nations.
Tuilaepa instead used the opportunity to point out that urgent action on climate change is needed.
His comments that the big powers, particularly Australia, China and the United States, were bullying Pacific Island nations to acquiesce to their strategic interests, while ignoring the plight of the island nations, were aimed at a wider audience.
While “the existential threat faced by some of our low-lying atoll states are being faced now”, the Pacific is “swimming in a sea of so-called ‘fit for purpose’ strategies”, Tuilaepa said, referring to the build-up of military competition. He said that this was contributing to “a far-reaching sense of insecurity” and that the Pacific Island nations “strongly believe in being part of a Blue Pacific continent that is free from military competition”.
Powerful players are “falling short of acknowledging the integrity of Pacific leadership”, Tuilaepa said, adding: “Some might say that there is a ‘patronising’ nuance in believing that Pacific nations did not know what they were doing.”
Tuilaepa’s words follow on from the stinging message given by Kiribati President Anote Tong before the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. His intervention brought global attention to the devastating effects that climate change was already having on some of the lowest lying atolls in the Pacific Ocean.
One could be forgiven for thinking the Samoan PM tailored his remarks towards the rearranged Coalition government in which the hard right sees an opportunity to push harder on coal despite clear evidence that it does not stack up environmentally, economically or, as in the case of the Pacific Islanders, morally.
Matt Canavan, the minister for resources and northern Australia — and unofficially the minister for the Adani mega coalmine in Queensland — has again revived the spurious idea of “clean coal” as a solution.
“We need to hearken to a new era of energy and resources abundance”, Canavan said on August 27. “God has given us an abundance of energy below the ground, but we need to convert that to an abundance above the ground to bring on more energy and lower prices.”
Perhaps this was what sparked Tuilaepa's observation that climate deniers were either stupid or needed to be given mental health care: only those who campaign for the dangerous status quo seem willing to believe that guilt-free coal is just around the corner.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology have been discredited for decades, including by supporters of coal power energy. And no one has come up with solutions to the huge cost and logistical challenge of transporting all the captured carbon dioxide and burying it.
Even if a super-efficient, lower emissions coal-fired power station could be developed, it would take many years to build and therefore not contribute to lowering energy prices in the near term.
As analyst James B. Meigs put it: “Coal will never be clean.
“It is possible to make coal emissions cleaner. In fact, we've come a long way since the ’70s in finding ways to reduce sulphur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and more progress can be made.
“But the nut of the clean-coal sales pitch is that we can also bottle up the [carbon dioxide] produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it's devilishly difficult in practice...
“We don't know if the gas will stay buried. We could easily spend hundreds of billions injecting [carbon dioxide] into the earth only to have it start leaking out again in a few decades.
“None of this means that CCS is impossible to achieve. But it is a dangerous gamble to assume that it will become technically and economically feasible any time soon.”
It seems reason and science are no friends of climate deniers.
But with the PM's chief of staff hailing from the coal industry, the new energy minister being an ardent anti-wind campaigner and the environment minister being a former mining industry lawyer, what have they got to lose? An election, hopefully, on the back of a strong movement against fossil fuels.
A June Lowy survey of 1200 people showed that an overwhelming majority (84%) support a shift to renewables, even if it requires greater government investment. Only 14% believe “the government should focus on traditional energy sources such as coal and gas, even if this means the environment may suffer to some extent.”
Fifty nine per cent said global warming is serious, up five percentage points since last year. Even among the 10% who were most sceptical of climate change, 40% still support a focus on renewables.
A good step in this direction would be to redeploy the more than $10 billion a year in government subsidies currently going to the mining industry towards renewables. There is no moral justification for this subsidy to an industry that is contributing to catastrophic climate change and threatening the very existence of Pacific Island nations.
Even on the economic front, wholesale electricity prices are forecast to almost halve over the next four years thanks to the growing supply of cheap renewable energy, according to data from the Renewable Energy Index. The data shows that since 2017 there has been a new boom in the supply of renewable energy, which has grown to the extent that it is exerting downward pressure on wholesale power prices.
GetUp!’s Miriam Lyons said the data showed that if the government was genuinely committed to bringing down energy prices, it would invest in renewables, with the take-up from the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme (SRER) showing how popular it was.
Lyons said that in July alone rooftop solar installation had created enough renewable electricity to power 11.1 million homes, as well as lowering prices on power bills.
Given we are already seeing the seismic change that climate scientists have been warning us about, now is the time to rule out more coal-fired power.
As the Pacific Rim countries know all too well, climate change is the biggest threat of our time, and those radical extremists who deny it need to be dumped.