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Pacific Island nations lead the way on climate policy

Image credit: Phillip Carter (Creative Commons: Wikimedia)

‘Climate change-denial’ is a senseless anachronism in the Pacific, where the devastating consequences of rising temperatures are unfolding in real time. This urgency has turned Pacific governments into reluctant world leaders on innovative climate change adaptation and disaster management, while many rich countries continue to flounder.

The reality is that catastrophic climate change is little more than a decade away if the world continues on current policy trajectories. This was outlined in a damning new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ICPP). World leaders must look to the Pacific and learn from their example.

The Pacific has no choice but to react. In 2015 when Tropical Cyclone Pam slammed into Vanuatu in the southwestern Pacific, it was the worst cyclone ever recorded in the region. That was, until the following year when it was outdone by Cyclone Winston. In the wake of the disasters, Vanuatu has developed a suite of new laws and policies to both reduce the country’s climate impact and improve capacity to deal with inevitable future disasters. Its new National Policy on Climate Change and Disaster-Induced Displacement, officially adopted in early October, sets a new global standard for the protection of people forced to relocate due to climate change.

Pacific countries have a strong history of cooperation, embodied in critical regional organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum and the Pacific Resilience Partnership. These forums have tended to focus on development and capacity building within the region, but have been less successful in leveraging group weight to negotiate stronger commitments from wealthier countries on climate action. State of the art climate policies can only go so far in a region whose inhabitants have seen little of the industrial growth now threatening the very sand under their feet. Despite huge ambitions, many climate ministries in the Pacific are severely underfunded, which is where wealthy countries should step up their efforts.

Climate cooperation is mutually beneficial

The rest of the world can draw important lessons and expertise from the Pacific – the world’s unlucky sandbox for climate change adaptation and disaster management. Wealthier countries should stop viewing their financial commitments under international frameworks like the Paris Agreement as burdens, and instead take the opportunity to develop genuine partnerships with Pacific governments as they put those funds into action.

Pacific islands face some unique challenges, such as low-lying atoll nations whose entire land mass rests on a vulnerable bed of living corals, just a few meters above sea level at their highest point. But they are also grappling with broader societal issues that every country will face at some point as the effects of adverse climate change become more pronounced across the globe.

One issue is how to protect human rights in the context of natural disasters: from gender-inclusive disaster policies, to balancing the rights of people that don’t want to leave their homes with the duties of states in emergencies and the practical realities of coordinating a massive disaster response.

Internal displacement and migration present another pressing issue. The international community has struggled to protect persons displaced by environmental factors. The international Refugee Convention – developed in response to mass ethnic and racial persecution during World War II – doesn’t cover the types of environmental drivers that dominate involuntary migration today.

In September, the UN General Assembly adopted a new Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which was a milestone in the protection of persons displaced by environmental causes. States must now muster the political will to tackle the considerable task of implementing these new international protections in domestic law and policy.

Pacific states are forging a path

Vanuatu’s new policy meets this challenge head on by dramatically increasing the scope of protections for people displaced by both rapid onset disasters like cyclones, as well as slow-onset disasters like sea-level rise and coastal erosion. In the Solomon Islands, several islands have already been lost to sea-level rise. A draft bill now before the Solomon Parliament will, if passed, become the world’s first binding national legislation protecting the rights of people displaced by climate change. These laws will not be perfect, and kinks will need to be ironed out, but as the first of their kind, policy makers in the rest of the world should pay close attention.

For Australia, a habit of treating the Pacific primarily as a security issue has undermined opportunities to cooperate on smarter climate policies. While Canberra recently increased aid funding for the Pacific, the focus has remained firmly on security. Pacific countries would benefit more from funding and technical support for preventive climate smart programs, while Australia would also stand to benefit from stronger Pacific governments and economies, rather than allowing the region to be weakened by ongoing environmental threats.

In addition, Australia and the other developed nations must take more serious action to curb carbon emissions.

Last week, Australia’s Environment Minister Melissa Price allegedly insulted the former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, suggesting that ‘For the Pacific it’s always about the cash.’ A sharp backlash swiftly corrected the minister, pointing out that what the Pacific really wants is action on climate change. The Minister’s alleged tactlessness aside, what the Pacific needs is both.

Australia must both take serious action to curb ongoing carbon emissions and financially support Pacific nations to deal with the consequences of climate change that have already been locked in. But support for the Pacific is no charity. It’s a debt owed in return for the benefits of historical industrialisation, and an investment in the health of future generations of Australians.

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