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The uncertain future of the Pacific Step Up: Australia’s climate inaction limits Pacific diplomacy

By Isobel Haddow

Australia’s contemporary Pacific foreign policy needs to prioritise positive relations with Pacific Island countries. These relations make up what has been coined the ‘inner ring’ of Australia’s interests in the Indo-Pacific. Maintaining positive bilateral and multilateral relations in the Pacific is very important for young people throughout the region for two reasons; the changing nature of power in the region, and the global challenge of climate change. Although current political leaders may not live to see the world warm by 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052, today’s young people will. It is therefore critical that Australia prioritises productive relations with Pacific Island countries to address climate change. To achieve this, Australia needs a meaningful national climate policy in combination with a more comprehensive Pacific foreign policy.

The most recent change in Australia’s dynamic foreign policy regarding the Pacific was in 2018, with the Government’s Pacific Step Up. The ‘package of security, economic, diplomatic and people to people initiatives’ demonstrated a renewed emphasis on relations with the Pacific. However, the Step Up fails to fully consider the interests of the countries concerned. Pacific Island leaders continue to be frustrated by Australia’s unambitious climate policy, which does not meet the desire of Pacific Island countries to take greater, immediate action. With sea levels rising and increasingly destructive storms and cyclones occurring, the Pacific Islands are impacted more by climate change than most other countries. It is important to recognise that while the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is not ignorant to the reality of climate change in the Pacific. Rather, the lack of a national climate policy in Australia reflects the political motivations of the current Liberal-National federal government who must seek to balance support from their constituents domestically with international climate action. Nonetheless, the current governmental failure to consider the interests of Pacific countries is leading to strained relations between Australia and the Pacific that, without policy change, will not improve in the future.

Australia’s far north islands are experiencing similar destruction to Pacific Island countries, evident in the increasing erosion of the Torres Strait, which has seen a 6mm annual rise in sea levels that is ‘more than twice the global average’. Lack of a national climate policy led a group of Torres Strait Islanders to take the Australian Government to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2019. The group, referred to as the ‘Torres Strait 8’, argues the Australian Government’s inaction on climate change violates their human rights. Strong weather and rising tides have eroded the Torres Strait, amounting to the destruction of Torres Strait Islanders’ ‘fundamental right to culture and life’. A decision is expected soon that could have an enormous impact on how climate change inaction can be understood as a violation of human rights. This decision may prompt the Government to take greater action on climate change, however, change is also dependent on Australian citizens pressuring and lobbying the Government. It is here that young people have a critical role.

It is paramount that young people make their opinions heard. Although current world leaders may not directly feel the impact of their climate change policies, young voters will. So how do young people make their voices heard, particularly given the constraints of a global pandemic?

Digital activism may be the answer.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented young people from gathering in large groups to protest in the same way their parents and grandparents did. This makes digital activism both a necessity and an asset. By sharing posts and stories (such as the story of the Torres Strait 8), donating to organisations working to address climate change, and learning about the realities of the climate crisis, young people can be politically engaged in ways that were not possible before social media. This is evident in the rise of the digital climate movement pioneered by Greta Thunberg under the hashtag ‘#climatestrikeonline’, which allows people to continue to make their voices heard in digital spaces. Young people have a unique opportunity to connect with other politically engaged young people across oceans, at a time when they cannot physically cross them, to share how climate change impacts their daily lives.

In response to the claims of the Torres Strait 8, the Australian Government argues it cannot be at fault as a single nation for the internationally created problem of climate change. However, former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Professor John Knox, asserted in support of the claims of the Torres Strait 8 that, all countries have obligations to do what they can to protect their people from environmental harm … including harm caused by the climate crisis.’ Claims that Australia is only one country among many polluters ultimately ignores the reality that the global issue of climate change requires action by all states to mitigate its impacts.

It is clear that if Australian policy makers continue to eschew responsibility for the effects of climate change, both diplomatic relations with the Pacific and the wellbeing of Australian and Pacific Islander citizens will suffer.

This piece was originally published in APYD's inaugural anthology Raising Our Voices.


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