The Australian Prime Minister clashed with Pacific island nations Thursday in the Pacific Islands Forum after Australia protected its economic interests and rejected stronger action on climate change.

This Pacific Islands Forum took place earlier this week in Tuvalu in an attempt to reach consensus on climate goals for the region. However, Australia, which emits more greenhouse gases than any other country in the area, succeeded in watering down the text of the final agreement and refused to endorse an end to coal mining.

The small pacific island nations, which are virtually all low lying and are the most vulnerable countries to climate change in the world, were unhappy with Australia’s revisions.

A Robust of Exchange of Views

There were heated exchanges between the Scott Morison, the Australian Prime Minister, and Enele Sopoaga, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, over Australia’s intransigence and its “red lines” on climate change.

“You are concerned with about saving your economy in Australia. I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu,” Sopoaga told Morison.

After the end of the forum, Soloaga told reporters, “I think we should have done more work for our people.”

Rising sea levels as a result of climate change, have already forced some residents of small pacific islands to relocate.

According to Ralph Regenvanu, the foreign minister of Vanuatu, who was responsible for drafting the final communique from the forum, said that discussions were often fierce and had come close to breaking down completely and had gone on way longer than anticipated.

“Negotiations almost broke down twice. That’s why it took so long, luckily it didn’t break all the way down and the leaders were able to bring it back,” he said.

The island states of the Pacific have criticised Australia for not doing more to combat climate change, which has already forced some of their residents to relocate.

Although Australia has experienced worsening droughts and heatwaves in recent years as a result of climate change, it has decided to protect its coal industry and in June approved a major new coal mine in Queensland, which will be developed in collaboration with the Indian firm Adani. The Pacific nations had hoped Australia would commit to ending coal mining.

However, Australia insists that it will meet its commitments under the Paris climate agreement to cut emissions by 26% on 2005 levels by 2030. Canberra also pledged USD$340m to the Pacific island nations for renewable energy projects.

The Caribbean Also at Risk

Many of the lower-lying islands in the Caribbean such as those off Belize and Panama, like the Bocas del Toro archipelago which are inhabited by the Guna people are also at risk from climate change. People from one island have already relocated to the mainland after the waves began to encroach on their homes.

Even islands such as Dominica, which is mountainous, is at risk of the effects of climate change. Dominica was battered by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Hurricane Maria was one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the Caribbean and climate scientists believe that with climate change the frequency and severity of hurricanes in the region will increase.  

Edward Cowley