A former president of the Pacific nation of Kiribati has blasted the influence of the fossil fuel lobby in Australia and the “politicisation” of climate policy, issuing a plea for leaders to adopt a “more moral” stance to cut emissions.
In a forthright speech five days before the Australian election, Anote Tong called for a proper understanding of what the climate crisis means to countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, saying “our survival is on the line”.
Tong, who was the president of Kiribati from 2003 to 2016, called on Australia to curb coal exports.
“It doesn’t stand to reason that if a country cuts back its emissions but continues to export emissions that it’s doing its part,” he told a Smart Energy Council event on Monday.
“I know that it is an open secret that the fossil fuel industry is very much involved in the lobbying process, but it’s always been my hope that our first loyalty as leaders would be to the people, rather than the very few who might benefit from the fossil fuel industry.”
The Morrison government is seeking re-election on Saturday with a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050, but the issue has caused internal divisions within the Coalition, and it insists the Tony Abbott-era pledge to cut emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030 is “fixed”.
Labor is pledging to increase that medium-term target to 43% and take the Pacific’s concerns about climate seriously. The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, has said the election is a chance to “end the climate wars” because major business, farming and union groups have lined up to support the party’s climate policy.
But both major parties have stopped short of promising to curb coal exports, relying on global standards which say emissions are counted in the country where the fossil fuels are burned.
Tong did not weigh into the election contest, but issued a broader call for stronger action. He said it was “very welcome” that Australia had embarked on an active program to increase the use of renewable energy, but “there is always this thread of its participation in the export of coal”.
In a virtual appearance at an emergency Pacific climate security summit in Canberra, he called for “a genuine and sincere commitment to cutting back” emissions.
“I’d like to hope that not only Australia, but the global community can come to terms with what’s happening, and be more moral, be more responsible to what is happening rather than pushing it aside,” Tong said.
“One of my biggest disappointments has been the politicisation of climate change whenever there is a different government, different administration coming in, in Australia, in New Zealand, its policies on climate change.”
Tong said global heating was “the major challenge facing the Pacific Island countries, especially the low lying atoll countries” which were “on the very frontline of the climate change challenge”.
But he said the effects were not confined to Pacific island countries, noting Australia’s Black Summer bushfires in 2019-20 and the flooding disasters this year.
“I think what’s so unfortunate is the inability of our leaders to be able to connect what the science says with what is happening on the ground,” Tong said.
He said last month’s statement by the Pacific Elders Voice group – including Tong – in the wake of the security deal between China and Solomon Islands “must not be construed as supporting that agreement”.
The statement said growing military tension in the Pacific region “created by both China and the United States and its allies, including Australia, does little to address the real threat to the region caused by climate change”.
Tong said on Monday: “Our intention was simply to reaffirm that, for the Pacific island countries, the greatest security challenge is not the superpower rivalry but the climate change challenge.”
Labor’s spokesperson for international development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, said Australia needed to be a “true partner” to countries in the region. He emphasised Labor’s election pledge to seek to host a UN conference of the parties (Cop) in partnership with Pacific countries.
“We know this may lead to some uncomfortable conversations in Australia and may lead to some tough debates within the policymaking circles,” Conroy said at the same event.
“But it’s very important because I think the symbolism of it is incredibly powerful. The Pacific islands community is probably the region of the world most exposed to climate change – climate change that they have not contributed to.”
Climate policy has not figured prominently in the major parties’ election campaign statements, although the foreign minister, Marise Payne, defended the government’s record at a foreign policy debate on Friday.
Payne told the National Press Club debate that Australia was “dealing in outcomes, not ambitions” and the government’s net zero by 2050 commitment “was overwhelmingly welcomed by our partners in the [Pacific] region”.
“I am not suggesting that they don’t seek more … but our support is practical and it is helpful,” Payne said.
The shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, said Labor’s pledge for a 43% cut on 2005 levels by 2030 was “a responsible, but ambitious target” and she accepted the need to respect the views and experiences of Pacific island countries.