You have to hand it to Kim Jung Un. In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything. The launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile two days before the G20 summit ensures that North Korea jumps to the top of the Summit's agenda. With one push of the button - probably practically as well as metaphorically - Kim Jung Un derailed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plans to focus the summit on climate change.
As a result, there is every likelihood that Australia, along with the US and other nations, will focus on persuading China to pressure North Korea into halting its nuclear weapons program. This would be a mistake. China knows that North Korea will not stop until it has the nuclear capability the regime believes will guarantee its survival. China also has little appetite for demonstrating what most analysts already believe; it has much less influence over North Korea than many, including President Trump, presume. So instead of spending two days consumed with the intractable problem of North Korea, the G20 should focus on the other great existential threat of our time: climate change.
Australia has a key role to play in ensuring this happens. As the only country in the Pacific region with a seat at the G20, Australia has a moral obligation to act as a spokesperson for the region. It is, perhaps to the chagrin of some, the most influential country in the South Pacific and therefore has an important role to play as a regional leader. Yet if Australia is to truly be a leader then it also needs to display loyalty to a region that it has deemed critically important to its own national security.
At the Climate Action Pacific Partnership (CAPP) Event held in Suva earlier this week, Pacific Island leaders repeatedly implored the G20 to heed their calls for action on climate change. Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, in a plea to the G20 nations stated, 'Please do not abandon us. Please commit yourselves to solidarity with vulnerable nations around the world', adding 'We have not caused this crisis – you have'. Meanwhile Peter Christian, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, addressed Australia directly. 'Speak to your industrial partners in South East Asia and the world,' he said, 'You are closer to Trump than I am!'
With this in mind, there are three important points that Malcolm Turnbull should push hard at this summit.
The first is for a commitment from all nations to seek to keep global temperature increases under a 1.5-degree Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels. At the CAPP, the Pacific Islands nations repeatedly made the point that, at current predictions, anything over a 1.5-degree rise in global temperatures will seal the fate of several atoll and island nations, including Tuvalu and Kiribati. Getting the other G20 countries to formally agree to this as a target, rather than the aspiration it is in the Paris Agreement, will be hard. However, if Australia wants to maintain any leadership credibility with its Pacific Island neighbours it needs to be seen acting in the region's interests, even if that is unpopular with the other industrialised nations. This should be the central tenet of Turnbull’s G20 objectives.
The second point involves solving an awkward dilemma: it is hard to be a climate change champion when you are the world’s largest coal exporter. Australia will always struggle to be accepted as a true regional leader when it is resourcing the very green-house gas emissions responsible for the global warming that are raising global temperatures, melting the ice caps, causing rising sea levels, and threaten the very existence of its Pacific Island neighbours. No-one expects Australia to cease coal production overnight. However, a moratorium on new coal mines would demonstrate a commitment to a reduced-carbon future. It would be seen as a selfless act and would restore some legitimacy for Australia in the eyes of its Pacific Island neighbours.
Thirdly, Australia can announce an increase in contributions to the Green Climate Fund, and challenge the other nations to match it, until they have covered the $2 billion shortfall caused by President Trump’s withdrawal from the fund. This will help the most vulnerable nations in adapting to the effects of climate change largely caused by the very industrialisation that gave the G20 countries their wealth. If championing a commitment to a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise and banning new coal mines, would demonstrate moral courage, then financially helping those nations paying the price for Australia’s carbon-enabled wealth would show that it is willing to take practical steps as well.
In Suva bay lies a container ship. In May this year, overloaded and unbalanced, the Southern Phoenix rolled over. Trying to overload the ship to maximise profit ultimately sealed its fate. The Southern Phoenix is lost, the cargo ruined. She lies now, a metaphor for the Pacific: over burdened by the greed of others; threatening to slip beneath the waves forever. By siding with the needs of the Pacific nations at the G20 summit Australia can help right the ship and demonstrate, not just that it is a regional power, but global leadership.
The overturned Southern Phoenix in Suva bay (Photo by author)