Former president of Kiribati backs legal case against Australia over inaction on climate crisis


A former Pacific Island president has backed a Torres-Strait Islander-led legal case to hold the Australian government accountable for climate crisis inaction.

On Monday, Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati, signed a statement of solidarity with Paul Kabai and Pabai Pabai, who have taken the government to court, demanding further emissions reductions in line with science.

The two Torres Strait Islander men hail from the Boigu and Saibai communities on two of Australia’s northernmost inhabited islands. Low-lying Saibai is just four kilometres from Papua New Guinea, and both islands are regularly flooded by seawater.

The pair are leading a landmark class action on behalf of their island communities, arguing the commonwealth of Australia is acting unlawfully in failing to stop climate change that, if unchecked, will destroy their homelands.

Tong lent his support and said Australia needed to do more to cut emissions.

“The Australian government is stepping up with cutting domestic emissions and committing to a zero emission level by 2050, which is good – but of course the real challenge has always been the exported fossil fuels, oil and gas which are essentially a lot more substantial than what would be emitted domestically. So that is the real challenge,” he said.

“The [Australian] government sometimes feels that it’s not their problem. It’s the problem of the importing country but nevertheless, it still contributes to global emissions.”

Tong backed the case after a week-long visit to the two Indigenous communities.

“We find a great deal of similarity with the situation that these people are facing with our own situation in our part of the world,” he said.

“Particularly the most vulnerable Pacific island countries with respect to the impacts of climate change.

“These peoples, these communities really do not receive any kind of focus.”

Kabai said he feared that his culture and community is at risk of being lost if nothing is done to mitigate climate change.

“We could lose our culture, our identity, even our own mother land. If we are forced to relocate to a land that land does not belong to us, what will we tell our children of Sabai, of Boigu? It will be lost and we will be climate-change refugees,” Kabai said.

Tong served as president of Kiribati from 2003 to 2016, and has meet with global leaders including former US president Barack Obama on climate advocacy. He urged the Australian government to do more to reduce climate change impacts, saying all nations must come together.

“It’s not created by any single one country and addressing it requires a collective effort. It’s got to be a global effort,” Tong told Guardian Australia.

“The tragedy is that people have not come to the realisation that it’s all of our problems and unless we address it, we might be hitting the tipping point, where climate change will become irreversible. The predictions of doom are not so unrealistic,” he said.