Washington and Australia should focus on climate change, says Pacific leaders

Pacific Elders Voice members, Anote Tong and Thomas Remengesau Jr

Washington should accept Pacific Island priorities for the region, making climate change – not superpower competition – the most urgent security task, the region’s leaders said in Hawaii, ahead of a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden this month.

“The sentiment shared by Pacific Island leaders is that they are hopeful that they would be able to work with the Biden administration on our strategy and our plan, rather than have the White House and the United States develop a plan for the region,” the governor of the U.S. state of Hawaii, David Ige said at a news conference after the closed-door meeting.

A regional strategy called the 2050 Blue Pacific Continent had been backed by all Pacific Island nations and territories, Ige said.

Leaders and officials from 16 Pacific Island nations and territories were present at Wednesday’s meeting in Honolulu.

Competition between China and the United States for influence in the Pacific islands has intensified this year, after China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, prompting warnings of a militarisation of the region.

Biden will host the first meeting of Pacific Island leaders at the White House on September 28-29, 2022.

Increased engagement with Washington was “very much welcome”, said David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia and the conference chairman.

The United States and its allies Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Britain formed a group in June to discuss how to work together in the Pacific islands’ region, seen as a counter to China’s growing influence.

Panuelo said Pacific islands want China and the United States to “compete in a healthy manner” to maintain peace in the region.

Climate change will be a bigger challenge than the Second World War, he said, adding “it is like pulling teeth” for low-lying island states to access support from international climate funds.

Only 12 nations have been invited to Washington, with French territories among those excluded for protocol reasons, and the meeting criticised the decision.

“When the United States invites our region, we want to be inclusive of all the members of the Pacific Island Forum as a family,” said Panuelo, referring to the main regional group.

“The future is at stake”

Meanwhile, 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 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.