Big Brother, Big Polluter


As the worst greenhouse polluters per capita in the world, Australians have a responsibility to show strong leadership in the use of alternative energy technology.

Climate change is a major concern for the Australian public – and if we are looking for motivation to gather the political will to act, we need look no further than our Pacific island neighbours.

Polynesians refer to the ocean as "moana", an ancient word meaning not just "home" but a place that is a perpetual gift and encompasses a sense of connectedness beyond arbitrary boundaries.

"The waves that touch the islands touch Australia and the whole planet," Bishop Winston Halapua, Anglican Bishop of Polynesia, said at the recent Lambeth Conference in the UK, where I chaired a panel on climate change. "Just because one ocean is rich, it cannot then ignore the needs of the other. We are saying to the world, greediness is the issue … and when we abuse the graciousness of the waves, we abuse ourselves."

In Polynesia, the Anglican Church, as in many parts of the world, is at the forefront of caring for people displaced and distressed by the impacts of climate change. In the Sudan, lack of water is the problem – among the Pacific islands, by contrast, rising sea levels are taking a toll of arable land, homes, fisheries, and room to live.

While a recent study from Hamburg University claimed that the Northern Hemisphere would be the first to experience a slow wave of melting polar ice, the rising seawaters have had a head start in the Pacific Ocean. They have already claimed the islands of Tebua, Tarawa and Abanuea; the Marshall Islands are under threat and the surrounding coral reefs are eroding.

Where Tuvalu used to be flooded by rainwater from the sky, Bishop Halapua says, now it is inundated from below as the sea water seeps up, inexorably poisoning the land and the fresh drinking water. Every island at the same level is suffering the same fate.

Couple these sea level rises with the increased risk of tropical storms because of warmer ocean water and the outlook for these threatened communities is grim.

Bishop Halapua has challenged our Government, through me, to continue its leadership in areas of social justice, and to turn its face to the plight of the people of the moana. This is their only home, and the loss of a culture that recognises the necessary relationship between all of us on this planet in such a profound way would be a tragedy beyond simple livelihoods.

We have had many years to hear the science on climate change, and to absorb the messages of the steps required to overcome it. We have a government which has been courageous enough to commission the Garnaut report, and it must be courageous enough to act on it.

Last month I called the people of Melbourne to a serious engagement with the environmental crisis. We live in relationship with the earth, and in relationship with one another. If we cannot honour our relationship with the earth, we must ask ourselves how we will look our Pacific friends in the eye when their homes are inundated.

Australia was happy to engage Pacific nations as a solution to dealing with refugees fleeing across the oceans, arguably for political rather than practical reasons. What an unhappy irony if our choice not to take real action, again because of political expediency, should lead to the massed arrival of refugees from the same region, as people flee the ocean itself.

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