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Australia, the Pacific Islands States, and Climate Change

Published 15 Oct 2022
Ralph Housego

In a changing climate, Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are among the states most at risk from rising sea levels, extreme weather events, food shortages, health issues and a tumultuous regional economic and security environment. But as the global emissions trajectory looks likely to overshoot the 1.5 °C warming target, these vulnerable states are understandably anxious about the future of the Pacific region.

As the new Australian government embarks on a diplomatic frenzy in the Pacific to promote their climate credentials and repair the strained state of the relationship between Australia and PICs that has occurred over the past decade (with the infamous Abbott-Dutton-Morrison rising sea levels joke marking an exceptional low-point), Labor’s support for new fossil fuel projects may already undermine their positive climate messaging. The government has thrown its support behind the massive Scarborough-Pluto gas project which will emit 1.4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases over its lifetime, which is more than three times Australia’s annual emissions. The government has also announced that it will approve almost 47,000 new square kilometres for oil and gas exploration. In 2020 alone, Australia’s embedded emissions from coal exports were more than the entire national CO2 emissions of Germany. The IPCC has very definitively said that in order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, there can be no new development of oil and gas fields as of 2021.

Thus, owing to our geographic proximity and our disproportionate contribution to global emissions, Australia has a moral obligation (and possibly a legal one) to provide substantial assistance to PICs who will suffer most from climate change.

Australia has already committed significant support in this area with the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus further integrating trade and development between Australia and PICs and at COP26 last year, Australia pledged to spend $700 million over five years to strengthen climate change and disaster resilience in the Pacific. But as the impact of climate change will cause long-term and complex issues not easily resolved by any one country, perhaps what the Pacific needs is an equally long-term and ambitious regional solution. And perhaps one such solution has already been floated. One of the key recommendations of a 2003 Senate Foreign Affairs Committee report was to explore the possibility of a Pacific community with a shared currency, labour market, and common budgetary and fiscal standards, among other shared institutions. In effect, the proposal advocated for similar supranational institutions akin to those of the European Union albeit much slimmed down.

An integrated set of economic and select political institutions in the Pacific would bind Australia to long-term climate change support for its neighbours and would in turn guarantee PICs far greater input in the climate-related decision-making processes of the most significant economic powers in the region. Further, greater regional mobility under a shared labour market could play a critical role in supplementing Australia’s ageing workforce as well as affording PICs greater economic agency. A 2016 Lowy report found that uncapped migration to Australia under a common labour market could increase the income of PICs in 2040 by over 400% from 2016 income levels. Permanent migration from their homes should be a last resort for PIC citizens but planning the structures now to facilitate future dignified migration should be a key underpinning of any proposed Pacific labour structure.

A Pacific Union no doubt has many faults that would need rectifying and would face even more hurdles to come into fruition, but if the Pacific Community is to endure and prosper in a changed climate than we must plan ambitiously now and not repeat the short-termism and disingenuity that has dominated climate policy thus far.

Ralph Housego is a fourth-year student at the University of Sydney studying a Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies (Politics and International Relations, Political Economy). Ralph is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.