The big rift: Australia’s stance on climate and the Pacific

For the vulnerable, low-lying island nations in the Pacific, climate change is not a political football — it’s about survival.

The Australia Institute
Sep 16 · 3 min read
Picture: Jamila Toderas, Canberra Times

Former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, joins the Australia Institute’s Follow the Money podcast to talk climate change.

As the largest island nation in the Pacific, Australia has a big role to play in the region. But the Federal Government’s intractable stance on climate change and coal has once again caused a big rift with our Pacific Islands neighbours, who are among the most vulnerable to a changing climate.

Anote Tong is the former President of Kiribati and he was the first world leader to call for a global moratorium on new coal mines, ahead of the Paris climate summit in 2015.

“The Pacific Island nations are facing problems which, on the basis of the science coming forward, will get much, much worse,” said Anote Tong, Former President of Kiribati.

“We may reach a point of no return very soon and that, for the Pacific, would be disastrous.

For us it is about our survival, it’s not about economics, it’s about people and whether they will continue to have a place to call home.”

But at the 2019 Pacific Island Leaders Forum in Tuvalu, Australia dug its heels in and refused to sign a communique from the smaller island nations that called for tougher emission cuts and for coal to be phased out, so as to ensure the survival of the low lying atolls and island nations.

“There is a gap in perceived threat and right now many people in Australia believe that climate change is not as relevant to them as it might be to us,” Mr Tong said.

“But I think the reality is what you’re already seeing the effects in Australia — what are you seeing? You’re seeing droughts, you’re seeing bushfires and you’re seeing stronger storms. Continue to think ahead and push this 20 years on, the projections are that it will get worse.

“There will come a time that we can no longer ignore climate change.”

What is the Pacific looking to Australia to do?

“The Pacific countries are talking about this as a matter of survival but Australia is resisting the because, well I don’t really know why — I mean we talk about the economy as a reason and all kinds of things — but I don’t really know why,” Mr Tong said.

“We are looking to Australia to provide leadership because, in the Prime Minister’s own words, we are a part of the Pacific family. As a family we must learn to look after each other.

“The reality is, we need to go beyond what is happening at the moment — Australia sees coal as a source of energy and revenue for the country — but I can assure you down the track that the things we are benefiting from today will come around, and the costs will add up,” Mr Tong said.

“It is immoral doing what we are doing, while knowing the science of climate change and what it means.”

Coal industry lobbyists and some political leaders in Australia claim that a coal moratorium “would spell economic and social catastrophe for Queensland and the national economy”. However, the Australia Institute commissioned economic modelling which shows that the economic impacts of a moratorium — on Queensland, New South Wales and Australia more broadly — would be small.

“I have thought about this a lot, and the only thing I can think is that there is something else driving the mentality of Australia’s leadership for it to do what it is doing,” Mr Tong said.

You can subscribe to The Australia Institute’s podcast series Follow The Money on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud or on the Institute’s website:

The Australia Institute

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Canberra-based think tank conducting research on a broad range of economic, social and environmental issues in order to inform public debate >

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