Labor faces major climate test, under pressure from the Pacific


Vanuatu’s special envoy on climate change for the Pacific has told Australia to back his country’s push to tie climate change inaction to the International Court of Justice, escalating pressure on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to act days before he meets with Pacific leaders in Suva.

The ultimatum, delivered ahead of the first day of the Pacific Island Forum leaders’ meeting on Monday, is aimed at pushing Labor to take concrete steps after promising regional leaders battling global warming was its top priority after almost a decade of conservative government.

Bakoa Kaltongga, who along with Vanuatu’s Ambassador to the United Nations Odo Tevi, has led the campaign to make climate change a human rights issue at the International Court of Justice, said it was time for Australia to show its commitment to action.

“The upcoming Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting will be an important moment to demonstrate regional solidarity in addressing the climate crisis,” Kaltongga told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“Vanuatu looks forward to the unanimous endorsement, including by our brothers and sisters from Australia and New Zealand, on the initiative to bring climate change to the International Court of Justice, to provide legal clarity on protecting the environment and human rights of present and future generations from worsening climate impacts.”

Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen and Foreign Minister Penny Wong were contacted for comment. Wong reiterated in Singapore on Wednesday that the “new Australian government has been elected with a much greater level of ambition on climate change”. “We are serious about it,” she said.

But the involvement of the International Court of Justice could trigger resistance from the pro-fossil fuel lobby and Coalition MPs concerned about Australia’s sovereignty in international climate disputes. The Coalition remains divided over Australia’s net-zero commitments, with some Nationals MPs – particularly in Queensland – arguing against greater climate ambition. Senator Matt Canavan said in May: “The net-zero agenda has proven to be a complete and utter failure in practical terms.”

Greens deputy leader Mehreen Faruqi said Australia’s support for the initiative would demonstrate that the new government “wants to be a climate leader rather than a climate laggard”.

“Those least responsible for the climate crisis, including nations like Vanuatu, face the worst impacts of climate change,” she said.

Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Bob Loughman said in May the push to strengthen climate action through the International Court of Justice would not seek to assign blame.

“This is for the world’s most vulnerable, for all of humanity, and our collective future. This is about what we must save, not what has been lost. This is a campaign to build ambition, not division,” he said. “This is a campaign to uplift the goals of the Paris Agreement. This is the young generations’ call for justice to the world’s highest court.”

Climate change – an existential threat to many Pacific communities who are dealing with rapidly eroding coastlines – is also seen as a vital policy shift for Australia as it struggles to contain China’s influence in the region. Beijing launched a Pacific climate change climate action co-operation centre in Shandong in April. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China has “committed to following a path of green, low-carbon and sustainable development” but Pacific nations remain sceptical of the ability of the world’s biggest polluter to clean up its industrial production.

The two issues, climate change action and China’s rising influence are set to dominate the agenda at the Pacific Island leaders meeting this week. Albanese is expected to arrive in Suva on Wednesday.

On Saturday, dozens of Pacific activists and students, Greenpeace Australia Pacific and Amnesty International rallied at a flotilla in Suva calling for leaders to endorse the International Court of Justice campaign.

Vishal Prasad, one of the leaders of the Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change group, wrote to Albanese in May arguing that the resolution presented a great opportunity for Labor to demonstrate its willingness to listen to Pacific Island voices.

Prasad said an advisory opinion would clarify the obligations of states to address the human rights threats of climate change.

“These international bodies that talk about human rights, such as the UN Human Rights Council have a mandate that’s restricted to human rights,” he said. “But when you have this interconnected issue of climate change and human rights being clarified by the International Court of Justice, then both of these bodies climate and human rights bodies will have the mandate to address either challenge.”

The endorsement by the Pacific Islands Forum leaders will be vital if the motion is to pass the UN General Assembly when it meets again in September. In March, the 14 member states of the Caribbean Community endorsed the proposal. The Pacific Islands are the next major island bloc severely impacted by climate change that could force it onto the UN agenda.

The motion would have to be carried by a majority of UN member states to be considered by the International Court of Justice.