Crest of the wave or dead in the water? Australian regional climate leadership

A secure Pacific island region is a core Australian national interes

Toby Warden

Society and culture, Development | Pacific, Australia

14 September 2017

Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement on 1st of June 2017 has lowered America into an enormous chasm of moral inferiority that Australia cannot afford to replicate for the sake of its Pacific neighbours.

Trump’s rationale is typical of his international relations psyche: overtly transactional and business-like. Any outcome in the international realm that doesn’t deliver fruitful benefits to the US economy is regarded with scepticism and deemed deleterious.

Pacific island nations do not carry economic importance to the United States but they do possess enormous strategic significance to Australia’s defence and security. The 2016 Defence White Paper includes that “we cannot effectively protect Australia if we do not have a secure nearer region, encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and South Pacific (comprising Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Pacific Island Countries). Australia must play a leadership role in our immediate neighbourhood”.

A secure Pacific island region is a core Australian national interest. Australia has a moral responsibility to be the guarantor and protector of Pacific security. Without American influence, the question of our regional leadership has become more important.

Worthy of greater alarm is the threat currently experienced by what Australia defines as crucial in the national security interest. Kiribati is now threatened by a predicted rise in sea levels over 6 feet by 2100 when the land itself only sits at 6 feet above water. A World Bank report found that the village of Bikenibeu, home to 6,500  could be submerged by 2050 with current rates of sea level rise. In 2015, Cyclone Pam affected 45% of Polynesia’s Tuvalu, displacing 10000 people.

An increase in global temperatures over 1.5 degrees would doom Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands. As Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, emphatically put it: “As Pacific Islanders, we are fighting for our very survival…[our] existence as sovereign nations with land and coastlines hangs in the balance.”

This seemingly brings me to Australia’s highly politicised, yet rarely securitised, energy and economic policies. Australia is the largest exporter of coal. In 2015-16, Australia exported 388 million tonnes of coal, and contributed to a staggering 30% of the coal export markets, making Australia a global leader in emission fostering.

Coal proponents regularly prioritise the job creation, increased standards of living and strong and stable economic growth gained from this reliable commodity. Coal exports was largely Australia’s key to survival during the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and contributes to a resilient economy that hasn’t experienced a recession since 1991.

Canberra must remain vigilant to not develop the same psyche that pushed the US to withdraw from Paris. The domestic is undoubtedly important, but the regional, and international, is just as significant. Lowy fellow, Greg Colton argues that ‘no argument for domestic job creation carries much weight for island nations who are considering how to relocate their entire populations because of climate change. It is seen not only as a very selfish act from a supposed friend, but also ultimately foolish.’

More on this: The rising islands of Oceania

To become the regional leader that Canberra strives to be it will first need to adjust its solipsistic energy and commodity policies. The Pacific Islands Development Forum, a regional forum promoting sustainable development, urged for an international moratorium on the expansion of new fossil-fuel extraction industries. While this decision would adjust the economy to finally ascend renewable investment above coal and other fossil-fuel industries, this future looks bleak. Both major parties are backed by coal-based industries and there are continuing propositions for new mines, such as the Adani thermal coal mine in Queensland.

But if long-term energy solutions and altruistic concerns of humanity are not enough, this decision could improve Canberra’s diplomatic perception and influence. Wesley Morgan suggests that Pacific Islands are beginning to engage in a wider range of multilateral platforms (that do not include Australia) in order to pursue their survivalist interests. The extent to which Canberra’s voice will retain projection, reputation and influence is at risk if its priorities in the Pacific are not properly addressed.

Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji at July’s Climate Action Pacific Partnership Event stated “to allow sovereign nations to slip beneath the rising seas altogether to preserve the economies and lifestyles of others would be an act of unparalleled selfishness and injustice. And any global citizen who believes in justice has no moral choice other than to side with you in your struggle.”

The Pacific nations are watching Australia’s every move. Malcolm Turnbull had the opportunity to champion climate change as a security issue at the past G20 leaders’ meeting. The next opportunity to convey Canberra’s selflessness and supposedly espoused justice will with the Adani coal mine. We cannot rely on the United States when it comes to this national security concern. In order to secure the national interest and pursue the moralism embedded in Australian values, Canberra cannot be like Trump.

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