Former Pacific leaders have called on Australia to take the lead on climate change in the region, saying their “future is at stake” unless more action is taken.
Anote Tong and Thomas Esang Remengesau Jr., former presidents of Kiribati and Palau respectively, are in Australia to discuss the country’s climate policies with government, opposition and crossbench members.
Representing the independent group Pacific Elders’ Voice (PEV), they met with several MPs on Wednesday, calling for deeper cuts to emissions and for new coal and gas projects to be cut down or stopped.
Tong said the group acknowledged the Albanese government’s “much more proactive stance” on climate change and welcomed the recent passage of its climate bill, which enshrines its 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030 in law. But he said more could be done as its policies are set in stone.
“We made it absolutely clear that whilst welcoming that [the bill], we want to make the point that this is still some way between what the science indicates is needed in order to be able to avert this impending disaster. For countries like ours, our future is at stake,” Tong told reporters in Canberra, alongside independent Senator David Pocock.
“Unless we can do more on climate change, our future – the future of my grandchildren, our grandchildren – will be at stake.”
Tong said he hoped Australia would be able to make “deeper cuts” in future, but acknowledged “it takes time”.
“But time is not what we have, because nature is giving us very strong signals … we hope that you as a people, as part of this global community, will be able to do that right thing.”
Remengesau Jr. said the Pacific is facing a “very delicate period” and a “perilous moment in our history”.
“Our message really is to come here and emphasise the need for family action,” he said.
“With Australia being the big brother, it needs to take the lead when it comes to issues of climate change.”
In 2015, Tong called for a moratorium on new coalmines, with Senator Pocock among the Australian signatories. Now he’s making a similar call.
He said Australia’s push to co-host the United Nations COP29 climate summit in 2024 with the Pacific would “appear to be a contradiction” while it was supporting new fossil fuel projects.
But the former leader said the bid would be a “perfect opportunity” for the Pacific to come together “and show the rest of the world we are doing something meaningful in our own backyard”.
“We want Australia as the big brother to set the tone and walk the talk for all of us,” he said.
“We support Australia hosting because it would be in our part of the world … But to be part of something that’s not doing the right thing is wrong. So hopefully, Australia will make a decision on what to do on the coal issue.”
When asked about the government’s relations with the Pacific, Tong said climate change is the “primary security issue” for its countries – “not what the superpowers are arguing over”.
“If Australia can step forward and say, ‘we are with you on this,’ then I think that is saying something,” he said.
“I know there are currently tensions in the region. But I’ve always believed we all have our own respective roles in our collective security.”
Remengesau Jr agreed climate change is the “heart of security”, and must be balanced with geo-defence.
“Geo-defence strategy is important because you want peace and tranquillity among the islands. But what is peace important if there are no people to enjoy the peace?
“It’s a matter of balancing what needs to be done first. And to us it’s not military positioning; it’s the existential threat of climate change.”
Senator Pocock, who joined the leaders in Canberra, said Australia has a “moral responsibility” to stand with its neighbours on climate action.
“This is clearly something we have to step up and actually act [on], and ensure that our actions match up with our talk when it comes to the Pacific family,” he said.
Senator Pocock acknowledged the leadership of the former Pacific presidents, saying they have shown “the leadership we’ve been missing in Australia”.
Having heard “good talk” from the government on climate, he said he would be using his position in the Senate “to play my role in pushing them on that, to actually act in line with what the community wants here in Australia and what our Pacific island nation neighbours want.”
It’s understood the former leaders will meet with Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen on Thursday. The minister has been contacted for comment.
Meanwhile, Bowen announced on Wednesday three new members had been appointed to the Climate Change Authority – Dr Virginia Marshall, Professor Lesley Hughes, and Sam Mostyn.
Senator Pocock said the appointments were a “great first step” but he wanted to see more people with climate science backgrounds.