Updated: Dec 20, 2019
By Owen Powell
As the sun starts its slow climb, the world begins to stir. Most people are still in their beds as dawn reaches them, but not everyone. In the remote nation of Tuvalu, the fishermen have already left their homes, and made their way towards the shores. About a dozen men have dived into the dark and freezing water, while the others slowly set up their nets. When the sun finally peers over the horizon, those men will be scouting for fish, and herding them towards their peers near the shore. Those on the shore will link together, creating a chain of bodies and nets that aims to catch the fish now rushing toward them. Each man trusts the others implicitly, knowing that alone, their families would go hungry. Together, they herd the fish into a small circle, and make the catch, as they have done countless times before.
Fishing is one of Tuvalu’s oldest and most valued cultural practices. It’s through this method that the people have managed to survive, and it only works with the cooperation and assistance of everyone in the community, from those who braid the nets, to those who prepare the catch, to the fishermen themselves. It is beautiful to watch, and a testament to the power of working together. And so, thought Enele Sopoaga, Tuvalu’s Prime Minister. Tuvalu was to host the annual Pacific Islands Forum, an intergovernmental network seeking to cooperate and address shared regional concerns and issues. Sopoaga had hoped more than ever to stress the need for ambitious action on climate change; a threat common to almost all its constituent countries. This coming together of leaders to observe the fishing practices of his country was to be the ritual that proved to the member nations of the Pacific Islands Forum the importance of community, and cooperation.
In that spirit, he invited the leaders of those nations to a small, secluded part of the shoreline on Thursday the 15th of August, to join him in observing this age-old fishing practice. He had hoped that this would convince his neighbours of the value of cooperation. Above all, he hoped it could convince Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister of Australia.
But Morrison wasn’t there, as he had decided not to attend.
This was the recent meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), which this year aimed to put a well-deserved spotlight on Australia’s commitment to fighting climate change, or rather, its lack of one. One of the foremost goals of the PIF was to come to a resolute agreement among the present nations to begin the difficult battle against climate change. The most important person to convince at the summit was Scott Morrison, who led the largest and wealthiest member nation of the PIF. If the Australian government could be convinced to alter its infamously sceptical stance even slightly, then the forum could claim a substantial win. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case, and Australia once again left the forum without any changes to its environmental policy.
The natural question might then be ‘why doesn’t Tuvalu focus on reducing its own emissions?’. And the simple answer is that it can’t, at least not in a meaningful way. The island nation has a population of just over eleven thousand. Indeed the Pacific islands as a whole total two and a half million, compared to Australia’s twenty-four and a half million. According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, some Pacific island nations experience rising sea-levels up to four times that of the global average. Among them, Tuvalu is at even greater risk still. During his recent Pacific tour, Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres visited many of the nation’s put at highest risk by the threat of climate change and rising sea levels. He stated, “Nowhere have I seen the heartbreaking impacts of climate change more starkly than in Tuvalu, a remote coral atoll nation where the highest point is less than five metres above sea level.”
With an average elevation of just 330 metres, Australia is the lowest continent in the world. With 85% of its population living within 50 km of the ocean, the island nation is beset with its own stark projections of coastal erosion and catastrophic storm surges. One might therefore expect a degree of empathy from the Australian government towards the plight of Tuvalu; over whose 4.6m even it towers. Yet, insufficiently moved by its own grim prospects to take bold action on climate change, the hopes that Australia would be motivated to change course by Sopoaga’s performance were perhaps always slim.
Australia has amongst the highest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the world, accommodating just 0.3% of the world’s population, but releasing 1.07% of its greenhouse gases. To put this in still starker perspective, Australia’s per capita annual carbon emissions sit at 15.4 tonnes to Tuvalu’s 1.0. This makes it clear that the small island nations of the Pacific Islands lack the ability to effectively combat this issue alone, and are near completely dependent on their larger, wealthier, and more politically powerful allies and neighbours. The most important element here is the role the Australian government had pledged to play as an ally to the people of Tuvalu; a role that it is failing to live up to. As a nation of more wealth and political influence, Australia has much more potential than countries like Tuvalu to have an impact on how climate change is progressing globally, by holding both itself, its allies and trade partners accountable for their actions environmentally. With an Australian government that fully commits to the cause, the PIF nations would have a much stronger platform through which to voice their increasingly valid concerns.
In August of 2019, prior to the PIF, many member nations of the forum agreed to the Tuvalu Declaration, in which they acknowledged a climate change crisis, encouraged countries to revise their targets for emissions reductions, and called for a rapid phasing out of coal power. They had hoped it would then be endorsed by the leaders of the PIF , which included the much larger and more wealthy nations of Australia and New Zealand.
Australia’s reaction was not, however, what the signers of the Tuvalu Declaration had hoped for. Rather than giving its endorsement, the Australian government expressed its reservations with the sections of the declaration regarding emissions reduction, and coal use.
In Tuvalu, the issue of climate change doesn’t necessarily share the highly politicized nature it has in Australia. This was something Sopoaga made clear to Morrison, “You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia… I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu”.
The forum served a key purpose in highlighting the damage Morrison’s attitude threatens to inflict on not only its own future, but to those of its closest allies; one that’s emblematic of a wider sentiment in Australia. Since the forum, the federal government and its leader have come under heavy fire from a great many people, including most notably the famous British broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough. In an interview on the Australian radio program Hack, Attenborough made it clear that Australia’s behaviour has a profound impact on not only itself, but all its neighbours and allies. "You are the keepers of an extraordinary section of the surface of this planet, including the Barrier Reef, and what you say, what you do, really, really matters."
Australia has a fraught history when it comes to climate change. In 2016, Australia was amongst 170 nations to sign the Paris Agreement, a deal between countries that aims to combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Following this, the Australian government promised it would reduce its emissions by a minimum of 26 percent of its 2005 levels by 2030; a respectable promise and an achievable goal.
Since 2016 however, Australia’s emissions have risen each year.
The most important obstacle to overcome is how partisan an issue the fight against climate change has become in Australia. The current Liberal government largely focuses on stimulating the economy over acting against climate change. Perhaps the most notable example Australia’s recent history is the approval of the Carmichael Coal Mine, often referred to as the Adani Mine. The project was given the final approval in June of 2019 and is set to be the largest coal mine in Australia, and one of the largest in the world, and will produce as much in carbon emissions as Delhi and Paris combined.
At every point, Morrison’s response to criticism on Australian climate and environmental policy has been to claim the actions of himself and his government are purely to support the economy. Countless significant branching paths have appeared before them, and at each one they have chosen the economy over the environment.
Despite this approach to policy, there are numerous signs of a flagging economy. The Australian dollar is at the lowest it has been in a decade, economic growth and wages are stagnating, and the poverty rate climbing. This focus on short-term policies over long-term environmental support in Australian is incredibly damaging, not just to its own people, but those of all its closest allies; people who lack the ability to solve this problem by themselves and are forced to rely on the help of wealthier and more politically influential countries.
As Enele Sopoaga sought to prove, the governments of Australia and the world need to look to the example set by the fisherman of Tuvalu. The Australian government’s current attitude of ignoring environmental protection in favour of short term gain however is deeply undermining the spirit of cooperation that its neighbours and closest allies have strived to create. As the future of the global environment seems to get bleaker by the day, it becomes clearer that it is only through consistent, dedicated work and cooperation that we can guarantee our survival. Without that, and without each other, we’re dooming ourselves to a future in which we watch our own culture and history sink beneath the waves.
Owen Powell is a freelance journalist and student that lives and works in the Barossa Valley in rural South Australia.
Art by Maya Adams
This article is an online feature of Anthroposphere Issue V.