Author: Tutti Copping, University of Technology Sydney

The Australian Government’s recent failure to list the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’ is another ‘F’ on their climate change report card.  In 2020, the Reef underwent its third iteration of coral bleaching, affecting 60 per cent of coral in the reef, and serving as a pertinent reminder of the environmental impact climate change is having in Australia.

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We frequently view climate change policy through this environmental lens. But Australia’s inaction on climate change policy is also affecting our diplomatic relations. When the rest of the world is pushing towards net zero emissions, where does that leave us?

Australia’s lack of substantive action on climate change is undermining one of its most prominent and necessary diplomatic relationships. The Pacific Islands have become the ‘poster child’ for the environmental impacts of climate change: loss of statehood, culture and the threat of displacement are real eventualities for the region. In fact, the consequences are already visible, with 80% of all global climate related migration between 2008 to 2018 occurring in the Pacific region. While in Australia climate change is mainly considered as political discourse, in the Pacific Islands it is a legitimate existential threat.

With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that the Pacific Islands continue to flag climate change as the biggest threat to their national security. This stands in stark contrast with Australia’s policy priorities. In 2020, for every $100 the Australian Government spent, only 16 cents went towards addressing the climate crisis. The vast difference in the prioritisation of climate change mitigation between Australia and Pacific nations is profoundly affecting this diplomatic relationship.

This friction is problematic for Australia, as it is in its own national interest to ensure the Pacific region remains a stable and prosperous zone. Over the past few decades, Australia has worked to help achieve stability in the area, which in turn, has promoted stability in Australia. Given Australia’s isolation, it is strategically beneficial to maintain a good relationship with these neighbouring countries.

Economically, Australia benefits immensely from the established relationship with countries in the Pacific and is actively working to enhance these ties. One only needs to watch the cruise ships leaving Circular Quay for the Pacific Islands to understand the mutual benefits to the tourism industry.

Looking further inland, Australia’s agricultural sector is reliant on the labour migration schemes established with the Pacific Islands. These programs are estimated to grow to five times their current size by 2040, reinforcing their economic value and necessity. Consequently, by alienating the Pacific through a lack of substantive climate change policy, Australia is putting itself in a precarious position, both in terms of national security and economic prosperity.

There is a substantial benefit for Australia in maintaining a diplomatic relationship with the Pacific, but this is becoming more difficult as Australia refuses to act on climate change. At the 2019 Pacific Island Forum, Australia declined to commit to the climate change objectives set by the Pacific Islands in negotiations. This lack of support was cemented when New Zealand, another key actor in the Pacific, announced its commitment to a net zero emissions target for 2050 in an act of support for the Pacific. Australia’s refusal to stand in solidarity with the Pacific Island region, demonstrates a cruel indifference to the consequences of climate change on our neighbours.

As tensions simmer, Pacific Island nations are looking to other countries for support and partnership, such as China. China is the second largest aid donor in the region after Australia, and unlike Australia, has committed to net zero emissions by 2060. Other countries, including the US, are following China’s lead, and using climate policy to leverage diplomatic ties in the Pacific region. These diplomatic moves should be a stark warning to Australia; if we continue to be complacent, the Pacific Islands will look to other trade partners in the Asia-Pacific region, and they’ll look to countries whose climate policy doesn’t threaten their existence.

What we see in the deteriorating relationship between Australia and the Pacific Islands is a case study for what will happen on a larger scale if Australia continues to neglect the impacts of climate change. As more countries commit to emissions reduction targets and move to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, Australia will be left isolated and distanced from the rest of the world.

To avoid further damage to our diplomatic relations, Australia needs to address climate change. The recent bushfires show us that Australia will stand to benefit from instituting a comprehensive climate change policy. This will also help sustain diplomatic relations with our neighbours in the Pacific Islands and show that Australia is committed to their longevity. Addressing climate change is inevitable, but the longer we stall, the more we risk. 

Tutti Copping is a penultimate year Bachelor of Communications and Bachelor of Laws student at the University of Technology Sydney.