In a comment on Tom Bennion’s recent post on the water crisis in Tuvalu and Tokelau Gareth drew attention to an article in the Economist which sounded similar themes. Small island states are well aware of the danger in which they stand and of how grudging any help is likely to prove:
Australia has turned down Tuvalu’s request for an emergency migration programme that would resettle the islanders. Even a €90m ($119m) aid package to tackle regional climate change pledged earlier this year by the European Union has done little to tamp down its fears.
The leaders of countries as far afield as Barbados and Grenada joined Tuvalu in raising the alarm over the issue in a series of impassioned speeches to the United Nations General Assembly last month. Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, laid the blame for the current debacle squarely at the feet of developed economies.
He was “baffled” he said, “by the intransigence of major emitters and developed nations that refuse to shoulder the burden for arresting climate changes that are linked to the excesses of their own wasteful policies.” As it happens, the first states to experience the effects of climate change as an existential threat are among the world’s smallest, most isolated and least powerful.
What particularly caught my attention in the Economist article was a link back to a past story published in the magazine in 1997. It was revealing both of how long the island states have been anxious and of how summarily those concerns have been treated by the more powerful.
Fourteen years ago at the South Pacific Forum meeting the small island states banded together to push for a Forum position at the then forthcoming Kyoto conference. They wanted the Forum to press for a world-wide cut of 20% of 1990 emission levels by 2005, tougher even than the target of 15% proposed by the European Union by 2010. They stood no show, of course. After days of heated argument with Australian PM John Howard, with New Zealand’s PM Jim Bolger trying to steer a course down the middle, the island leaders eventually reluctantly agreed to a statement in which the forum “recognised” the concerns of low-lying island nations, but accepted that there should be different reduction targets for different countries. The Economist commented that this “differentiation” was what Australia had been pushing for.
There was little choice for the aid-dependent island nations, though that didn’t stop Tuvalu’s PM expressing his frustration with Australia: “There was no compromise. It was just no, no, no, no, no.”
Mr Howard dismissed the islanders’ fears as “exaggerated” and “apocalyptic”. Australia argues that it depends heavily on energy-intensive industries, and that binding greenhouse-gas limits would hit it unfairly. Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of black coal. Other raw and semi-processed commodities figure highly in exports to Asia, its biggest market. Mr Howard claims that 90,000 jobs in Australia could be lost if it were forced to reduce its emissions.
Well, the Islanders’ fears in 1997 were not exaggerated, as is becoming all too apparent. And this year’s meeting of the Forum saw no attempt to downplay those fears, all the more, perhaps, because of the presence of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He had come via endangered Kiribati and said “Climate change is not about tomorrow. It is lapping at our feet – quite literally in Kiribati and elsewhere.”
The Forum called for “an ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to enable the survival and viability of all Pacific small island developing states.” Fourteen years ago it might as well have urged a reduction of greenhouse emissions small enough to allow business as usual to continue in Australia. However although today’s rhetoric is more on the mark there’s little evidence that it will be reflected in action.
Where did Howard get the confidence to use words like exaggerated and apocalyptic in dismissing the small island fears in 1997? It seems to have been the perceived threat to the Australian economy that gave him such boldness. No doubt it was mingled with science denial, or at least the assumption that the scientists must be overplaying the picture. And perhaps a touch of political swagger. Today’s politicians may be more circumspect in their language (or not, in the case of American Republicans), but perceived threats to the economy of developed countries still often outweigh in importance the need to address emissions reduction. Nick Smith has made it clear in New Zealand that the emissions trading scheme will not be permitted to pose any imagined threat to our major industries. In the UK the Chancellor George Osborne has recently and startlingly announced in the course of a speech to the Conservative Party conference:
Now we know that a decade of environmental laws and regulations are piling costs on the energy bills of households and companies. Yes, climate change is a man made disaster. Yes, we need international agreement to stop it. Yes, we must have investment in greener energy. And that’s why I gave the go ahead to the world’s first Green Investment Bank.
But Britain makes up less than 2% of the world’s carbon emissions to China and America’s 40%. We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business. So let’s at the very least resolve that we’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe. That’s what I’ve insisted on in the recent carbon budget.
That’s very reminiscent of the words used by New Zealand government politicians:
It is important that New Zealand does its fair share to combat climate change, but we don’t want to jump ahead of the rest of the world.
That is why our ETS will be regularly reviewed, so we can assess our approach relative to international progress and the latest science. Our very moderate ETS is the sensible way for New Zealand to go forward.
We may not be as brash as John Howard fourteen years ago, but there’s no comfort for the small island states in the cautious approaches to emissions reduction still typical of much of the developed world. No comfort indeed for any of us who are aware of just how real the threatened impacts of climate change are.