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Ripple Effect

The cost of our Pacific neglect

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This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 12: Feeling the Heat. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

A new Pacific step-up

In the six years since the Paris [climate] conference, geostrategic competition between the United States and China has prompted major powers to take a renewed interest in Pacific island states. China, through its Belt and Road Initiative, has financed important infrastructure projects in the region, including wharves, airports and roads. The United States has responded with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid as part of a 2019 “Pacific Pledge”. Japan too has committed new funds for infrastructure, while New Zealand bumped up aid as part of a 2018 “Pacific Reset”. The United Kingdom has dived back into the region with a 2019 “Pacific Uplift” that includes three new diplomatic posts in the Pacific. French president Emmanuel Macron visited Australia and New Caledonia in 2018 to remind everyone that France was a “Pacific power” with a keen interest in making sure China does not dominate the region. Even Indonesia announced a “Pacific Elevation” in 2019. Amid these pledges, resets, elevations and uplifts, Australia’s Pacific step-up is in a crowded field.

Unlike Australia, however, other countries have leveraged climate policy to win friends in the region. They have highlighted steps they are taking to reduce emissions and have promoted Pacific leadership on climate. France, for example, has recast its Pacific image from a colonial power that tests nuclear bombs to a key partner in the climate fight. At the 2015 Paris conference, then French president François Hollande told island leaders that “France is fully a country of the Pacific… we share the life and future of the big Pacific family”. The following year, the French territories New Caledonia and French Polynesia were welcomed as members of the Pacific Islands Forum.

While Pacific countries understand the climate crisis as an urgent threat, Australia does not

As other powers have exercised climate diplomacy they have, perhaps inadvertently, highlighted Australia’s lack of climate action. In 2018, New Zealand legislated a net-zero emissions target for 2050, which in the eyes of Pacific leaders set Wellington apart from Canberra. At the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ retreat, while Morrison argued over the text of a regional climate declaration, Bainimarama took a lunchtime walk with Jacinda Ardern. He live-tweeted a picture of the two strolling the Funafuti foreshore, captioning it, “When combatting climate change, it’s good to have an ally like New Zealand in your corner. Together, we can save Tuvalu, the Pacific, and the world. Vinaka vakalevu [thank you so much] for the passion you bring to this fight, @jacindaardern”. Ardern told reporters that “Australia has to answer to the Pacific” on climate change. The contrast between other countries and Australia is especially pronounced this year, as major powers the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom work with Pacific island countries to press for stronger targets before the COP26 summit.

While Pacific countries understand the climate crisis as an urgent threat to their security, Australia does not yet see it in the same way. This has led to a mismatch in strategic priorities. Australia’s Pacific step-up is driven by security concerns, particularly that China could leverage infrastructure lending to establish a military base in the Pacific. But island leaders take a different view. At the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum, they issued a declaration formally reaffirming climate change as the “single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”. Compared with a more coercive China, and competition between the United States and China, island leaders see the impacts of climate change – stronger cyclones, devastating floods, rising seas, dying reefs and ocean acidification – as more tangible and immediate threats. As Fiji’s military commander, Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto, told the 2019 Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore:

I believe there are three major powers in competition in our region. There is the US … there is China [and] the third competitor is climate change. Of the three, climate change is winning, and climate change exerts the most influence on countries in our part of the world. If there is any competition, it is with climate change.

Increasingly, the rest of the world shares the Pacific’s perception. Australia is out of step not only with Pacific island states, but also with major powers and friends. UK prime minister Boris Johnson told the UN Security Council in February 2021 that “it is absolutely clear that climate change is a threat to our collective security and the security of our nations”. US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry said failing to address the climate crisis was like “marching forward to what is almost tantamount to a mutual suicide pact”. US president Joe Biden has said that “if we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter”. The United States, like Pacific island countries, wants Canberra to do more to reduce emissions, and to move away from coal-fired power. It is in Australia’s interests to act, because the climate crisis is a critical security threat to Australia as well. The bushfires of early 2020 – which killed dozens of people, incinerated millions of animals, turned the sky blood-red and rendered the air in Australian cities a health hazard – were a warning. They were a window to the catastrophic future Australia faces if the world fails to take urgent action to reduce emissions.

For Australia, the costs of inaction on climate far outweigh the costs of action. Indeed, failure to plan for the inevitable transition would not only be a missed opportunity to tackle the climate emergency, but also a missed economic boom. Australia is well placed to take advantage of surging demand for renewable energy, and for alternatives to emissions-intensive products. There is no doubt change is needed.

A new Australian climate policy would allow a reset of Australia’s Pacific strategy. Morrison himself understands how important climate action is for Australia’s relationships in the region. Soon after he became prime minister, he was asked by Alan Jones why we shouldn’t just “rip up” the Paris Agreement and bow out of it. His response was telling. He told Jones the agreement was “enormously important” to Australia’s island neighbours, “who are strategic partners in the Pacific”. He was right, of course. Good relationships with Pacific island countries are vitally important for Australian security. If Australia begins to shift its approach to climate change, it will have a chance to work with Pacific countries as climate partners. The first order of business will be to announce a target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Doing so at this year’s Pacific Islands Forum would tell the world Australia is committed to action and working with Pacific island countries to achieve it.

Canberra also needs to set a new target to reduce emissions over the next decade. Australia’s 2030 target is both out of date and woefully inadequate. A more ambitious climate policy would help cement Australia’s place as a security partner of choice for Pacific countries. As Bainimarama – the incoming chair of the Pacific Islands Forum – has said, “strong commitments will make strong friendships”. Working through the Pacific Islands Forum to pursue climate diplomacy would strengthen Australia’s credentials as a regional power and do much to enhance its image on the global stage. But Canberra must embrace the opportunity while it still can. After decades of trying to sabotage Pacific climate diplomacy, Australia can only hope it will still be welcomed into the Pacific family.

This is a 1228 word extract of a 4709 word essay by Wesley Morgan. Get your copy of AFA12: Feeling the Heat to read the complete piece, along with contributions from Marian Wilkinson, Amanda McKenzie, Richard Denniss and Allan Behm. 

AFA12 Feeling the Heat cover image

This is an extract from Australian Foreign Affairs 12: Feeling the Heat. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.