Alienating the Pacific

How should Australia conduct its business in the Pacific? How should an elephant behave when meeting with mice? How does it avoid squashing them? 

Scott Morrison says that as Australia’s prime minister he needs to tread carefully in Pacific Forum meetings and not be the proverbial bull in the china shop. But less than three years ago he set his country apart from others by refusing to join a consensus of all other members until his exceptional needs were met. 

Unlike some Australians, Pacific islanders don’t argue over climate change because they see it in plain sight. Most of them live just metres above sea level on shorelines or coral atolls. They once knew how to live with the ocean’s moods, but are powerless in the face of sea level rise now approaching 4 mm a year.

That rising sea level is felt most keenly in the form of flooding tides and storm surges, which now happen around 10 times more often than back in the mid-20th century. It threatens the sovereignty of a few especially vulnerable island nations, like Tuvalu. Half the usable land of some atolls has already been lost to flooding and salinity.

The people of the Pacific are so fearful of the rising ocean that they rate climate change – not foreign military bases – as the region’s single biggest security threat. That was affirmed in the Boe Declaration, signed in 2018 by members of the Pacific Islands Forum, including Australia.

The following year leaders of those countries met in Tuvalu. Scott Morrison attended, and was asked in the spirit of Boe to consider a request from all other Forum members that Australia reduce its use of coal. His response – sorry, but no – nearly tore the meeting apart.

The day after the meeting Morrison told journalists that he respected and understood Pacific nations’ “deep sensitivity” to “these issues” – he avoided using words like climate or sea level – adding: “It’s not a dinner-party conversation here in the Pacific; it’s a real conversation and we had a real conversation last night.”

That was putting it mildly. Morrison’s refusal to pursue a stronger climate policy brought an angry reaction from leaders known for exceptional politeness. Host prime minister Enele Sopoaga told him that “you are concerned about saving the economy; I am concerned about saving my people.” He disclosed that the forum’s elder statesman, Tonga’s Akilisi Pohiva, was brought to tears during the debate.

Pohiva was revered throughout the Polynesian Pacific for his decades-long battle for Tongan democracy, during which he was jailed several times. In 2013 he was given the global award of Defender of Democracy. His passion for urgent climate action, with his health failing, profoundly affected the Tuvalu meeting, according to Fiji prime minister Frank Bainimarama.

Pohiva died four weeks later, leaving a gaping wound in the Pacific psyche. West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda said he would be remembered as a “great statesman”. And to the Solomon Islands’ Manasseh Sogavare, he was “a dear friend, … a great Pacific leader and an icon for Pacific democracy”. 

The origins of last week’s Solomons-China pact go back to Australian attempts to prevent the islands allying with Taiwan in the Howard era. We’ll never know what sealed the switch to Beijing in 2019 – money was almost certainly involved, for instance – but it’s worth considering that formal recognition happened a month after the Tuvalu meeting and just four days after Pohiva’s death. 

In Australia our sketchy knowledge of Scott Morrison’s performance at the Forum was quickly blanked out by a cascade of emergencies at home – drought, fire, pandemic and flood – driven largely by the changing climate that had so distressed Akilisi Pohiva.

We will continue to pay a heavy price in the Pacific as long as we treat its people’s genuine fears for their future with the breezy indifference shown by Scott Morrison. Our refusal to put our weight behind their Boe Declaration says a great deal about Australia’s Pacific commitment, none of it complimentary.

Going into the 2022 election, both the Coalition and Labor claim their emissions policies are viable, but that rings hollow without policies to shut down coal, oil and gas industries, rapidly and decisively. Emissions and mining are discussed separately, but never together. 

Labor must share responsibility for the ludicrous, paralysing climate policy mess we have got ourselves into. If it cannot find the courage to articulate a clear plan to shut down fossil fuels, more independents in parliament may be our only hope. Meanwhile we continue to dishonor both Pacific people and our own.

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Where is the climate policy debate?

Through the first week of Campaign ’22, our choice of government seems to be turning not on critical policy questions but on how leaders answer trivia questions.

For a sense of perspective on this, try reading the opening chapter of The Ministry for the Future, by Californian writer Kim Stanley Robinson. If you don’t have the book to hand, here in a nutshell is what that chapter is about.

Three years from now, in 2025, a town in India’s Ganges basin experiences a heatwave like no other, where the air is so hot and humid that even in shade people continue to get hotter. Desperate for cool air they seek refuge in a Western-run medical clinic. 

As small children and old people start dying, the US medic tries to refuel a generator to drive air conditioning, but a street gang assaults him and steals the AC units. In the evening he leads people to a nearby lake, where they all lie in the shallows. But with the water as hot as the outside air, people continue to expire, one by one. We learn that somewhere around 20 million Indians died that day.

Robinson’s near-future scenario is no flight of fancy. It describes the combination of high heat and high humidity at which the human body cannot cool itself because sweat cannot evaporate. Untreated, it will cause organ damage within an hour or two, then death.

This deadly heat, measured by a thermometer with a wet cloth over its bulb, is called wet-bulb temperature. The danger point is when the wet-bulb rises above 35C, equivalent to 43C at 50 per cent humidity, or 54C in dry air.

Until two years ago it was widely believed that wet-bulb 35C had not yet happened, and even with global warming would not be an issue till 2050 or so. Then a study published in the journal Science found that some hotter places had already reached that threshold, and that such events were becoming more frequent, more severe and longer-lasting.

This finding has critical implications for parts of Mexico, the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts, and north-western parts of both India and Australia. If monsoonal humidity were to coincide with a slow-moving heat system in heavily populated regions of India, for instance, a death toll in the millions would not be out of the question.

Spoiler alert: For all its grim beginnings, Robinson’s book turns out well: the human race is able to turn things around so that by 2100 the mean global temperature is about where it was in 2000 – greatly aided by a wonderfully simple, dramatically effective global “carbon currency” dreamed up by a real-life Australian, Brisbane engineer and hydrologist Delton Chen. That’s another story for another time.

It’s my belief, based on no scientific evidence, that Americans are inherently optimistic. In research for his book, Robinson unearthed a host of possibilities for making our climate safer, starting with the global shock of seeing millions of people killed by extreme, relentless heat. 

As his story describes, when whole populations of people can see clearly that climate change is real and present, not something fabricated or exaggerated by scientists with nothing better to do, a lot of things become possible.

We are seeing the first tremors of this sea change in the lead-up to this year’s federal election. When PM Scott Morrison had his first election victory Australia was suffering from a prolonged drought, which grew steadily worse through most of his first year in office. 

Then came the Black Summer fires – a huge shock to the world and most Australians including, by his own admission, to the prime minister. But it was no shock to an all-state team of recently-retired fire chiefs who had sought unsuccessfully to counsel him and his ministers and advisers on the approaching danger.

A brief burst of flooding rain and our epic battle with Covid preceded the third climate shock of this electoral cycle, devastating floods in SE Queensland and NSW’s Northern Rivers, giving weight to the widespread view among the world’s climate scientists that Australia is at the top of the list of countries most heavily impacted by global warming.

Now, in the face of a rising tide of climate action advocacy among a new breed of independent election candidates, two key climate institutes lose funding in the 2022 Federal Budget while the PM promises more money for oil refining, coal and gas extraction, and native forest logging. And both major parties support continuation of fossil fuel subsidies.

Heaven forbid that it takes the deaths of millions to turn such heads.

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Challenges and opportunities for a new premier

Peter Gutwein should not be judged by how long he lasted as premier, but such comparisons are inevitable. Against some predecessors he barely rates. There was a period around World War II when a person could spend their whole childhood knowing just one leader. 

He left because he ran out of puff, or as he put it, worked until there was “nothing left in the tank”. He could have used a better analogy in the week the UN was warning us off fossil fuels, but we know what he means.

Gutwein’s leadership of Tasmania through the pandemic would test the fittest, most resilient of leaders. He deserves warm thanks for his decisive initial response to this public health emergency and his hands-on management of it until he decided it was over in December. But there were important areas he didn’t attend to, which only add to growing external pressures being faced by all governments.

In three decades of UN reporting on the state of the climate, there has not been anything as confronting as the third instalment of its sixth assessment report, released last week. The bottom line of a mountain of evidence is this: with current national pledges taking us to a 14 per cent increase – that’s INCREASE – in emissions by 2030, we must stop using fossil fuels. End of story.

Continuing carbon-intensive conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere, and the failure of multiple countries including ours to stop extracting coal, oil and gas to use or sell to others, is only making a near-impossible task that much more so. Most people want strong emissions measures, but leaders able to articulate and give effect to this are vanishingly small.

It’s a big step down from the global scene to our remote little island. That’s what most of our island’s politicians believe – certainly most of those in the two major parties – and it’s why they have treated climate change as a low level issue for this state, or even totally irrelevant.

There’s always someone else to blame. Tasmania can kick the can to Canberra, whose leaders can argue (even as they stand on world stages with US presidents) that we’re a minor player with no real impact. When the subject comes up they flick it away and turn to other matters. 

Besides climate, the latest IPCC reports touch on a host of connected matters like species extinction, natural habitat destruction and the huge range of measures around adapting to a radically new climate, which demand a lot of preparation and blue-sky thinking. 

Jeremy Rockliff’s career encompasses nurturing, nourishing, healing activities: growing food and counselling people in distress, while as a farmer he knows about thinking ahead. On the face of it, this equips him well for guiding Tasmania through the growing challenges presented by climate change, around food, energy, housing, health, transport and industry. 

Before he quit, Gutwein was preparing for a parliamentary sitting in which the big item of business was the first attempt to strengthen Tasmania’s “Climate Change (State Action) Act” since it was passed 14 years ago. 

While a small improvement on the original Act, the amending bill barely begins to address what lies in store for us. It accords with stock-standard political paradigms, but climate change is not a stock-standard matter. It is crying out for a rethink, across the whole of government.

There’s been a complacency around Tasmania’s response to climate change. Like others before him, Peter Gutwein liked to talk of it as world-leading when it clearly was not. We have not appreciably reduced carbon emissions from fossil fuel use.

When Will Hodgman’s government took power in 2014 it took the partisan option of “ripping up” a hard-won forest peace deal and reopened crippling wounds in our social fabric. Now, when its power to arrest protesters has been found wanting, its first impulse is to take the shonky option of changing the law to fit those past arrests.

Ironically, while fast-growing regrowth helps the emissions bottom line for a while, in the long run removing native forest is damaging our long-term capacity to reduce emissions. And along with all large-scale industry, on land or offshore, it has an impact on natural ecosystems which we continue to ignore at our peril.

Tasmania would be far closer to being a world leader if it paid more attention to both critical natural processes and strong social cohesion. Our new premier can choose to move away from meaningless ideological spin and begin that process, turning to his own life experiences for guidance. If he does, many good things could happen.

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