Pacific civil society, representing the voices and concerns of communities deeply impacted by the climate crisis, are disappointed with the recent remarks made by the Fiji prime minister while on a state visit to Australia.

Fiji PM Sitiveni Rabuka said Australia’s fossil fuel industries cannot be shut down immediately.

“We want them to tone down [their fossil fuel industry activities],” Rabuka told the media at a press conference last week after meeting with his Australian counterpart.

However, Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN) regional coordinator Lavetanalagi Seru said he is in total disagreement with the prime minister’s comments.

“It does come as a shock to civil society,” Seru said.

“His comments were harmful and destructive to the hard work over the year that has been put in by Pacific civil society and the climate movement in the region.”

When asked whether Pacific leaders will use next months Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Rarotonga to put pressure on Australia to shut down its fossil fuel industry Rabuka said: “We are realistic about our demands.”

The Pacific has benefited from aid and grants from Australia in the past and he does not want them to stop, he went on to say.

But he admitted that it needed to be “sustainable” from a “sovereign” point of view.

“It’s got to be sustainable. You don’t just stop everything,” he said.

The night before Rabuka spoke to a room packed with researchers, diplomats and Pacific community members at the Lowy Institute about his proposal for a Pacific Zone of Peace.

In that speech he said, “the climate crisis poses a real threat to our existence”.

“They know what’s happening in Kiribati, they know what’s happening in Tuvalu and we say please help us out on this,” Rabuka said.

He did not speak about phasing out fossil fuels in that speech but he did emphasise the seriousness and immediate threat the climate crisis poses.

But PICAN’s spokesperson is not impressed.

“We will only be able to achieve that Paris [Agreement] goal, if we were to phase out fossil fuel infrastructures immediately, including putting an end to fossil fuel subsidies,” Seru said.

He said Rabuka saying the Pacific needs to take a “realistic” approach towards Australian coal mining and gas production will be “music” to the ears of the fossil fuel industry in Australia.

“It kind of signals that the Pacific is okay with the status quo,” he said.

When it comes to the use of the word “realistic” Seru said, “we certainly disagree with these comments, we think that Australia can put an end to any new fossil fuel projects or any new fossil fuel infrastructure”.

PICAN is calling on Rabuka to reconsider his position and align Fiji’s efforts with the global consensus.

“It was kind of a slap in the face of the hard work that’s been put in by Pacific leaders both past and present,” Seru said.

He said both the US and Australia visits have been “missed opportunities” to hold big emitters to account on fossil fuels., which is also part of PICAN, expressed similar sentiments.

Its Pacific organiser George Nacewa said they were disappointed by Rabuka comments “enabling Australia’s coal and gas addiction”.

“Science has made clear that fossil fuels are the leading cause of the climate crisis, and the destruction of our villages, reefs and shorelines is what this looks like in reality, Nacewa said.

“The Pacific has always been a strong voice for climate ambition and I urge the Prime Minister not to lay that legacy to waste. I am a Fijian and I am a father, and if Australia truly is ‘vuvale’ to us, they need to commit to phasing out fossil fuels and show me that they care for the safety of my children’s future.”

Seru said work by Vanuatu through the Port Vila Call needs to be amplified on these visits.

“The calls that we’re making to leaders, including Australia, New Zealand, is to support the key elements of the particular call for just transition towards the fossil fuel free Pacific,” he said.

Also, in the lead up to next month’s Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting, PICAN wants leaders to support the call for the establishment of a commissioner for just transition for the region.

Seru said if Australia is genuine about its partnership with the region, in particular with its joint bid to host COP, it would need to join the Port Vila Call among other Pacific initiatives.