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Pacific leaders contradict Cairns climate deal

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24 September 2009 15:56

Nic Maclellan works as a journalist and researcher in the Pacific islands and was a member of the media pack at the Cairns summit.

At the August 2009 Pacific Islands Forum in Cairns, Australian officials drafted the 'Pacific leaders' call to action on climate change', which won approval from all Forum leaders. The Call to Action largely reflected Australian policy on greenhouse gas emissions, rejecting much stronger targets advocated by a number of small island states.

But this week, Pacific leaders have contradicted the deal struck in Cairns. Meeting at the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) summit in New York, they've commited to the much tougher position advanced by the AOSIS. What changed so soon after the Forum?

In Cairns, Kevin Rudd pledged to carry the region's concerns on climate change into the G20 and other high level meetings. He's been doing so in New York this week — at a doorstop interview, Rudd noted:

Some of the points I'll be making as Chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum is the real and present danger which climate change and inundation from the sea presents to a number of our island nations in the South Pacific … if you look at the impact on inundation from the sea for the Pacific Island countries, it ain’t long term, it's happening now.

The unity in Cairns shouldn't blind policy-makers to ongoing debate over policy in the region, where the Forum outcomes have been sharply criticised. This month's editorial in the leading regional news magazine Islands Business notes:

The outcome of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) meeting on climate change is essentially a death warrant for Pacific Islanders. The truth of the matter is that neo-colonialism was the order of the day in Cairns….It was evident in Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s opening statement: ‘We are playing our part in international gatherings - including by representing the interests of the Pacific islands nations - in other international fora where Australia participates, including the G20.’ That’s very gracious Mr Rudd. But who in the Pacific elected you to represent us at the G20? Who appointed you Sheriff of our Pacific county?

The Australian media mostly presented Cairns as a triumph for Kevin Rudd on climate policy: the outcomes papered over the divergent policy positions between Australia, New Zealand and the islands, and wedged his domestic critics (not without a bit of manoeuvring – this week Radio Australia has headlined 'machinations behind consensus on climate change' and Crikey revealed how officials watered down the original draft statement from the Small Island States caucus, to remove any reference to targets stronger than Australia will accept).

After a decade of delay under the Howard Government, island leaders have clearly welcomed the stronger engagement on climate issues that the ALP has brought to government. But in the region, the new Australian policy 'Engaging our Pacific Neighbours on Climate Change' has not won universal support. Island leaders have expressed concern over the difficulty of translating extra resources into action on the ground.

Another problem is the failure of successive governments in Australia to start policy planning on issues of climate displacement (the key exception is Defence – the 2009 Defence White Paper forsees using the Australian Defence Force against 'threats inimical to our interests' when conflict erupts after people are displaced by climate change!). In Cairns, outgoing Forum Chair Toke Talagi suggested that the Forum should formally start talking about resettlement.

Even though the Pacific Call to Action highlights a commitment to the 'agreed science', climate science has moved on since the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report. Recently, Lord Nicholas Stern and the IPCC's chief scientist Rajendra Pauchari have stated their support for a much tougher target on emissions reductions than Australia has adopted (like these scientists, AOSIS and the Least Developed Country grouping are calling for a target of 'well below 350ppm CO2e' – far beyond Australia's policy of '450pp CO2e or lower').

Australians should not kid themselves that the Pacific is happy with our government's weak pledges on greenhouse gas emissions. Our neighbours have good reason to be concerned — it's likely that negotiations to get the CPRS through the Senate will see more concessions to the coal lobby and further delays in implementation.

Photo by Flickr user prgibbs, used under a Creative Commons license.

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