In December 2008, the head of the small Pacific island state of Tuvalu challenged the notion that low-lying atoll nations must inevitably succumb to the adverse effects of global warming. Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia told the UN climate conference in Poland: "It is our belief that Tuvalu, as a nation, has a right to exist forever. It is our basic human right. We are not contemplating migration. We are a proud nation with a unique culture which cannot be relocated elsewhere."
This sentiment was reaffirmed in Copenhagen last week by Tuvalu’s chief negotiator Ian Fry: "Tuvalu is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, and our future rests on the outcome of this meeting. My prime minister and many other heads of state have the clear intention of coming to Copenhagen to sign on to a legally binding deal."
Bad luck, says Kevin Rudd’s key climate adviser Ross Garnaut. According to Garnaut, it is inevitable that climate change will displace South Pacific populations: "The South Pacific countries will end up having their populations relocated to Australia or New Zealand and the rest of the world expects that. In the end, we’re likely to accommodate them, so there’s a solution there."
Garnaut argues that in coming decades, Australia will have bigger concerns than accommodating the 10,000 Tuvaluans who may be displaced by climate change. By the time Tuvalu is rendered uninhabitable through the adverse effects of global warming, peak oil and global trade policy, hundreds of millions of people in the developing world will face crises over food security and access to drinking water. The social crisis in much of Asia and Africa will dwarf the problems facing small island developing states.
Even so, many Pacific islanders I’ve spoken to this week were shocked by the casual attitude to their fate shown by Garnaut and other commentators. For indigenous communities, the prospect of leaving their land is no small matter. Climate displacement is increasingly debated in the Pacific, but many people recognise that resettlement is not simply a matter of transport, food and shelter — it’s a complex social process involving human beings with hopes, dreams, aspirations and especially memories. Garnaut’s glib talk of relocation as a "solution" doesn’t go down well in the region, given that Australia’s last "Pacific solution" involved locking up people next to a phosphate mine in Nauru.
In spite of the environmental impacts already locked into the ecosystem, the physical and economic crunches that will drive climate displacement will not happen overnight. For this reason, Tuvalu and other small island states continue to stir the pot at the global climate negotiations, highlighting the need to reframe the debate and guarantee the right to development for affected communities — wherever they are — through stronger action on greenhouse gas emissions, increased adaptation funding and technology transfer.
In Copenhagen, the United States, the European Union, Canada and Australia are pressing BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and others) to guarantee verifiable and binding emissions cuts. But Tuvalu and other smaller vulnerable states have challenged the neat dichotomy of "developed" and "developing" nations.
Earlier this year, Tuvalu joined other AOSIS members to propose a legally binding protocol to be incorporated under the UNFCCC Conference of Parties, to complement (not replace) the Kyoto Protocol. These amendments aim to secure new and deeper post-2012 emission reduction targets for industrialised countries currently bound by the Kyoto Protocol. The new targets would also be reflected in a new protocol to be adopted under the Convention, sitting side-by-side with legally binding targets for the USA.
As Tuvalu’s stand raised international headlines, the Guardian implied that Tuvalu, "politically and financially close to Australia", was a stalking horse for Canberra.
But as the world’s largest coal exporter and a major exporter of uranium, Australia’s interests clearly clash with the priorities of Pacific countries that are members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDC) caucus.
As detailed in Australia’s latest Pacific climate policy, "Australia is advocating an ambitious global effort to stabilise greenhouse gases at 450 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) or lower." The Rudd Government states that this target is needed in order to limit temperature increases to 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
In contrast, AOSIS has called for "well below 1.5 degrees Celsius", and for greenhouse gases to be stabilised well below 350ppm. In Copenhagen last week, AOSIS chair Dessima Williams claimed more than 100 nations had agreed to these tougher targets — the only problem is that number is measured by votes in the UN General Assembly, not GDP! When the United States, the European Union and China thrash out a final deal later this week, nearly half the membership of the United Nations General Assembly will be sidelined.
As Tuvalu’s negotiators have shown in Copenhagen, Pacific Islanders are not just sitting back to await their fate. From renewable energy initiatives and community-based vulnerability training to advocacy at international meetings, islanders are actively engaged in responding to the climate emergency. With this week’s negotiations unlikely to end with a legally binding commitment, Pacific advocacy will continue in coming months.
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