In her fortnightly column for Mamamia, Tanya Plibersek MP explains her recent trip to the Pacific Islands.
In Australia we often talk about what climate change will mean for Australia’s future: more droughts, bushfires, floods, cyclones; the economic effect on agriculture or tourism as our Great Barrier Reef is threatened; increased insurance costs; the effect on people’s health.
Mostly we talk about these threats as future challenges.
But I’m just back from Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, and Kiribati, where climate change is not a future threat, it’s a current reality.
Pacific nations are on the front line of climate change.
Papua New Guinea is facing the worst drought in many years. The drought has seen farmers losing crops and the first cases of starvation reported. But it has also caused the huge Ok Tedi mine to be closed because the river used to transport its products has dried up, affecting the whole economy.
Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said climate change was “like a weapon of mass destruction.”
All of the land area of the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, and 97% of the land area of Kiribati, is less than five metres above sea level.
When Peter Dutton made his stupid joke about water lapping at the doors of homes in the Pacific, the sick thing was, it’s actually happening. You can see people’s homes that used to be well back from the water now teetering above the sand and waves. Storm surges are washing away roads and causeways linking the islets that make up these coral atolls.
In case you have forgotten the quip went like this (post continues after video):
I saw the work being done to try to repair this damage: new sea walls being built, people moving their homes back from the ocean; the planting of mangroves to provide a natural barrier to erosion as the ocean rises. All these measures use money that could be spent on health and education in these poor nations but they are necessary for survival.
In the Marshall Islands we visited a small island that no longer exists. That island was once a place that had breadfruit, palms, a home and a garden that supported a family. That was just over a decade ago. Now it is just a string of coral outcrops, washing into the sea, crumbling away with every year. The sea has eaten the island.
In the Marshall Islands I also met a young teacher, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. Last year, Kathy travelled to the UN in New York to tell the global community about her fears for her home, and for her eight year old daughter’s future. She read a stirring poem she had written for her daughter, Matafele Peinam:
“they say you, your daughter
and your granddaughter, too
will wander rootless
with only a passport to call home
dear matafele peinam,
The citizens of both the Marshall Islands and Kiribati actually fear that their nations will become uninhabitable if global warming continues.
The sea level rises and more frequent and damaging storm surges are one thing, but the droughts denying fresh water to people and crops is another. As the sea levels rise, the salt water pollutes the fresh water table, making it impossible to drink from wells. The soil becomes salty and some plants no longer grow.
A poem by 26-year-old Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, from the Marshall Islands, delivered at the Opening Ceremony of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit (post continues after video):
The Government of Kiribati is preparing for the worst by buying land in Fiji to grow crops. People ask themselves whether their whole nation will need to migrate.
What can Australia do?
We can help countries in our neighbourhood cope. For many years Australia has provided good quality aid to our Pacific neighbours, including helping them to prepare for the changes they are experiencing. We’ve cut a lot of that aid recently. As the effects of global warming worsen, we are doing less to help.
Despite promising to focus Australia’s overseas aid budget on our region, the Abbott-Turnbull Government has cut more than $110 million in aid from the Asia Pacific. That includes a cut of $2.5 million from aid to Kiribati and $3.2 million from aid to other small Pacific Island countries. That funding was helping Pacific Island nations with things such as climate change adaption and mitigation. For example, Australia was running the successful Climate Adaptation Disaster Risk Reduction and Education program in the Marshall Islands. However, because of the Abbott-Turnbull Government’s cuts, the United States had to step in and take the program over.
We can also help our Pacific neighbours tell their story to the world. Small nations like Kiribati, with population of around 107,000 and the Marshall Islands, with a population of about 55,000, rely on countries like Australia to support them in making the case for climate action on the world stage.
We have the opportunity to do that at United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris later this year – but only if we set credible pollution reduction targets ourselves. As they stand, the Abbott-Turnbull Government’s targets are embarrassingly weak. Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum has been particularly critical of Australia’s failure to set ambitious emission reduction targets. He said if the whole world acted like Australia, that some Pacific nations, and the barrier reef, would disappear.
Australia has an important role to play in the lead up to the Paris talks. Pacific leaders have called on Australia to help amplify the voice of the Pacific. For their future, and ours, we must be more ambitious at home, and more committed to action internationally.