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Climate Politics in Oceania

Published 01 Apr 2024

On Tuesday 26 March 2024, the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW welcomed Dr Wesley Morgan to launch Climate Politics in Oceania: Renewing Australia-Pacific Relations in a Warming World (Melbourne University Publishing, 2024). The launch was coordinated with the launch at AIIA Qld by Dr Morgan’s co-editors, Prof Caitlin Byrne and Prof Susan Harris Rimmer of Griffith University. Their work was inspired by the May-June 2020 edition of the Foreign Affairs journal The Fire Next Time. This edition focused on climate change and is titled after the devastating 2019 Australian bushfires.

Dr Morgan’s observations regarding Australian foreign policy on climate change throughout the past few decades drew on his professional background as a senior researcher at the Climate Council and research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute. Dr Morgan emphasized that the book has brought together scholars from Australia and the Pacific Islands interested in the climate crisis, climate and foreign policy, national security and regional economies.

Morgan observed that the climate crisis is challenging the region’s approach to foreign policy and diplomacy, their conceptions of defence and national security, the partnerships of key allies in the region, and Australia’s relations in the Asia-Pacific including exports to key trading partners.

He analysed the developments that have led to Australia’s contemporary political climate policy for the Pacific region, including the establishment of the ‘Blue Pacific’, a multilateral forum comprising 14 independent Pacific island nations. This term was coined by the Pacific Islands Forum in 2017. Most Pacific nations gained independence between the 1960s and 1980s. The effects of climate change on these states were most prominently identified in the late 1980s, with measurable sea level rises for low-lying islands and atolls in the Pacific, and was raised in the Australian-funded 1989 Small States Conference in the Maldives.

Morgan contended that there was a clear global standstill in climate negotiations in 2000s, epitomised in the 2001 US withdrawal from the 1997 Kyoto protocol, which sought to enforce limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with agreed individual country targets. Notably, Australia did not join this framework until 2007. However, Pacific island countries brought climate change to the UN Security Council and insisted it was a threat to their sovereignty. Climate change is no less of a threat to Pacific island nations than guns and bombs are to western countries.

Developments in the climate space persisted, evident in the establishment of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which requires countries to commit to emissions reduction by certain dates. The Pacific island nations were prominent actors in this framework establishment, most notably Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands who, according to Dr Morgan, formed a coalition that grew to a majority of Pacific countries: this majority helped drive the establishment of the Agreement.

Fast forward to today’s Australian government. Foreign Minister Penny Wong has re-emphasised Australia’s position in supporting the Pacific island nations and acknowledged to Australia’s previous lack of support in the region. This had been due to Australia’s US-centric approach in Indo-Pacific foreign and in security policy. The realignment to a more Pacific focus is evident through Australia’s interest in bidding for the 2026 COP31 climate talks and co-hosting it with Pacific nations.

When asked how Australia, despite having implemented reductions of domestic emissions, would reduce scope 3 emissions (to which Australia is a prominent global contributor), Morgan responded that Australia needs to cooperate with major trading partners, such as Japan, in transitioning to clean energy solutions, as Climate Minister Bowen had emphasised.

Report by Jacob Barry, AIIA intern


Dr Wesley Morgan (centre) with AIIA NSW intern Jacob Barry (right) and AIIA NSW president Ian Lincoln