Malcolm Turnbull and Australian Coal making waves in the Pacific

Malcolm Turnbull is representing Australia at a meeting of Pacific Nations in Samoa this week. And while he is unlikely to do or say anything particularly useful there, his presence will make a big difference. Indeed, one of his main objectives is to try and prevent other Pacific leaders from demonstrating leadership on climate change

As anyone who goes to regular office meetings knows, meetings can be more productive when some people aren’t in the room. It’s harder to talk about some problems when the cause is in the room. And it’s harder to talk about solutions when those determined to resist change are present. That’s what it’s like when Australia, the world’s largest exporter of coal, attends meetings where other countries want to talk about climate change.

“As anyone who goes to regular office meetings knows, meetings can be more productive when some people aren’t in the room. It’s harder to talk about some problems when the cause is in the room.”

When the leaders of the Pacific island states meet and talk about climate change, they don’t mince their words. That’s because for low-lying nations like Kiribati and Tuvalu the plans of countries like Australia to double our coal exports and build more coal-fired power stations threaten to literally push them beneath the waves. For these vulnerable nations, climate change is not just a threat to their economies, it is a threat to their existence.

So it’s no surprise that when the leaders of the Pacific get together at the Pacific Island Development Forum (PIDF) they can agree on not just strong words about climate change, but on the strong actions required to prevent it.

For example, the PIDF’s Suva Climate Declaration stated on page 1 their “grave distress”, “profound concern” and “deep disappointment” relating to the world’s efforts on climate change, before expressing on page 2 their ‘Grave concern that the continued increase in the production of fossil fuels, particularly the construction of new coal mines, undermines efforts to reduce global GHG emissions and the goal of decarbonising the global economy.

Pacific island nations are opposed to rich countries like Australia building enormous new coal mines that imperil their people. It’s not hard to imagine why. And it is increasingly good politics for Pacific Island leaders to point out Australia’s contempt for climate action to increasingly well-informed Pacific voters.

“Pacific island nations are opposed to rich countries like Australia building enormous new coal mines that imperil their people. It’s not hard to imagine why.”

Australia, of course, sees things differently. The Australian Prime Minister thinks that building new coal mines is not just a great way to create jobs in Queensland but also a great way to contribute to global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Read that last sentence again if you need to.

The determination of the Malcolm Turnbull to use climate policy as a way to motivate his domestic voter base is fast motivating Pacific leaders to confront Australia on the diplomatic front. Put simply, Australia is abandoning its moral authority in the Pacific in pursuit of some votes in regional Australia.

The gulf between Australia and the Pacific can be seen by comparing the communiques from the meetings Australia attends and the meetings it doesn’t. Australia is not a member of the PIDF, the forum that supports a moratorium on building new coal mines, quoted above.

But Australia is a member of the PIF, the Pacific Island Forum (note the missing D), that Turnbull will attend this week in Samoa. When the talk turns to climate change, the PIF shies away from talking about coal.

Indeed, not one of the last five PIF Leaders Communiques even mentions coal. The only discussion of fossil fuels at the PIF is not a call for Australia to abandon plans to double coal and gas exports, but, bizarrely, for Pacific nations to reduce their fossil fuel dependence. Pacific nations produce just 0.03% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions yet they are being told to reduce their emissions!

By contrast, the Australian and Queensland Governments are so keen facilitate more coal emissions that they are willing to subsidise not just the enormous new Adani coal mine, but eight other new mines in the Galilee Basin and others in the Surat Basin via subsidised loans and a reduced royalty deal.

While the Prime Minister’s presence at this week’s PIF meeting will probably be sufficient to keep the need for a moratorium on new coal mines off the agenda, there is a big difference between silencing other Pacific participants in a meeting and persuading them.

Australia is a loud voice at PIF meetings, but its influence at global meetings is small and shrinking. At the same time, the voice and the cohesion of the leaders of island states is growing rapidly at those same global meetings. Not coincidentally, the next Conference of the Parties (COP) will be chaired by Fiji and the meeting, although it will be held in Bonn, has been dubbed ‘the Pacific COP’. When Australia insists that subsidising new coal mines is an important part of global efforts to tackle climate change at such forums it is rightly mocked. Similarly, Australia’s hostility to a moratorium on new coal mines places it increasing odds not just with our Pacific neighbours, but with countries like China, which introduced a moratorium on new coal mines in 2015 and France which recently banned new oil and gas exploration.

While Malcolm Turnbull will likely succeed in keeping coal off the agenda at this week’s PIF, the Bonn talks are the next big chance for the leaders of the Pacific to make a global impact on the shape and pace of climate action. Of concern to Australian diplomats is that calls to reduce fossil fuel supply are now beginning to resonate outside of the Pacific and in regions as diverse as the Caribbean and Scandinavia.

Diplomacy is slow work, but after 20 years of global climate talks that have done nothing to reduce the production of coal, oil or gas, the countries that face the biggest threats from climate change are starting to work together and shift focus. While fossil fuel exporting countries like Australia have succeeded for decades in shifting attention away from their growing coal exports to the ‘emissions’ of their counties, climate vulnerable countries are now succeeded in shifting the focus back to the hypocrisy of countries like Australia.

In the words of Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, “There is strong resentment and strong disapproval of [Australia’s] double standards. [Pacific islanders] are not children that can be misled by giving them a piece of cake and saying ‘ok we don’t talk about these things.’ We are not children. Tuvalu will not [be misled].”

Richard Dennis is the Chief Economist at The Australia Institute @RDNS_TAI

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