The Pacific should persist with Australia on climate change

Asia Australia World

Author: George Carter, ANU

It has been weeks since Tuvalu hosted the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting (PIF), but the media attention and public outcry it sparked is yet to simmer. More than 25 agenda items from maritime boundaries, resilience and security to the long-term 2050 regional vision were discussed, but the buzzword this year was ‘climate change’ and it led to the consequential Kainaki II declaration.

The drought-affected Darling River sits well below its banks at Pooncarie, a town in outback western New South Wales, Australia, 25 April 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Tom Westbrook).

The drought-affected Darling River sits well below its banks at Pooncarie, a town in outback western New South Wales, Australia, 25 April 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Tom Westbrook). The spotlight was on Australia’s climate change policy as a laggard in the region, leading to doubts about its place in regional politics and posing deeper questions about the future of climate change, regionalism and geopolitics.

The greatest accomplishment of PIF 2019 is the extraordinary attention it received, shining a spotlight on Pacific regional politics and climate change. But much of the media and public commentary revolves around Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison defending his government’s climate change policy by stating that he is ‘accountable to the Australian people’.

The ordeal caused embarrassment for Australia. There were reportedly fierce clashes between Morrison and Tuvaluan Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga on Australia’s position on climate change. This was not helped by Australian Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack’s comment that the Pacific islands will continue to survive because their seasonal fruit pickers benefit from Australia’s strong economy. The events prompted Sopoaga to describe Morrison’s attitude as ‘unfortunate’ and ‘neo-colonial’, while Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama charged the remarks as ‘very insulting and condescending’.

Australia’s climate inaction has not only damaged its relationships with the Pacific but has also led to doubts about Australia’s place in the regional political order. The former president of Kiribati and global climate advocate Anote Tong has suggested an urgent review of Australia’s PIF membership for possible sanctions or suspension over its pro-coal stance. He compared Australia’s policy stance towards China’s engagement in the region as being about the lesser of two evils and that Australia is currently emerging as the worst of the two evils.

These comments have re-ignited debate about Australia’s place in Pacific regionalism. There are doubts as to whether the Pacific nations should forgo both regional partnerships and lines of diplomatic dialogue in the face of policy divergence.

Yet it is necessary now more than ever before to engage Australia in regional multilateral dialogue on climate change. The PIF Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor reiterated the importance and challenges of Pacific regionalism in the face of climate change and increased geopolitical competition in the region. She highlighted that reaching a consensus, especially on climate change, is becoming increasingly difficult.

Australia maintains a sizable contribution to the Pacific region’s economic and regional institution growth that is second to none — but it is about more than just money and technical assistance. Rather than severing the regional dialogue chord, the Pacific needs to engage and continue lobbying Australia on climate change issues.

While new regional organisations provide alternative platforms for climate change discourse among Pacific states, PIF is unique in its additional mandated authority. It encourages members to voluntarily implement climate action as it is a forum where leaders of 18 nations affirm collective decisions on regional concerns by consensus. But this process is far from straightforward.

There is often a large number of options on the table in multilateral negotiations rather than a few definitive possible outcomes. A consensus from regional multilateral negotiations will always be the lowest common denominator in that the agreement reached is a ‘watered down’ version of what parties would ideally like to achieve. The multi-layered decision-making process involves months of negotiations by officials before leaders can finalise an agreement. For the negotiations culminating in Funafuti, the drafting group on the climate change declaration could not agree on six key paragraphs and so leaders had to find a compromise.

It is also possible for one country to utilise its veto power which effectively suspends the dialogue. The success of PIF 2019 is that despite dancing around many countries’ red lines, a consensus was reached. Australia could have walked out if its positions were questioned, and Tuvalu or Fiji could have left if they felt other parties were not pulling their weight.

Entering into multilateral meetings, states will not commit to something that is not already implemented at the national level. Yet lobbying by political leaders can influence another country’s ambitions and domestic policy to the benefit of the region. It could be argued that this has been the case for the increase in Australia’s regional and bilateral climate change partnerships.

The apt timing of PIF 2019 also allowed leaders to strategize before the annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) negotiations. New Zealand and Australia differ from the rest of the Pacific island states on global climate politics. But Australia is the chair of the Umbrella Group that includes the world’s biggest economies and the hope is that they can elevate Pacific positions within the Umbrella group.

PIF allows Pacific island negotiators to probe the red lines of the Umbrella Group. More importantly, positions and strategies from PIF can then be shared and reworked with coalition partners before the UN Secretary General Climate Change Summit and the COP later in the year.

Dame Meg Taylor defended Kainaki II as the strongest agreement on climate change that has emerged from the Pacific. She emphasised the robustness of the consensus decision-making process, speaking pointedly towards regional pessimists that believe Australia should not be involved in Pacific multilateralism, especially on climate change issues. Despite Australia’s record as a laggard of climate action in the region, it is essential for the Pacific countries to engage Australia in dialogue.

George Carter is a Research Fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University and a Visiting Fellow at the University of the South Pacific, Suva.

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