Australia should help the drowning nations

Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 14 Sep 2007

ALTHOUGH the consensus from APEC was that much had been achieved, this feeling may not be shared by many of the people who live throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
The Prime Minister’s words may well come back to haunt him: "The next meeting will never achieve everything we would like, but the world will not come to an end." For some people living in the Pacific, the world — their world, to be specific — is coming to an end.
As early as 2000, the United Nations predicted that developing countries would be affected first and worst by climate change. Many Pacific countries are already feeling the effects and UN predictions for the Pacific are dire.
Pacific islands, in particular those with low-lying islands and predominantly coastal communities, are extremely vulnerable. Rising sea levels not only erode the coastline and threaten fish stocks but also increase the frequency and severity of violent storms and cyclones, making the lives of people who live in these areas all but impossible.
UN reports are ominous in their predictions — a sign that things are set to get much worse. Sea-level rises of up to 59 centimetres, more intense tropical cyclones, heavy rains and more natural disasters are already prevalent in coastal communities and low-lying parts of the world.
Extremely bad weather or rising sea levels are forcing people from their homes and destroying traditional ways of life. Most of these communities are faced with a twofold crisis — having to abandon their homes and traditional lands, but with nowhere to go.
Geography makes the compelling case that climate change is already affecting the world’s poorest people. In the Marshall Islands, about 60 hectares of dry land (8.6 per cent of the total land area) could be lost to erosion.
Likewise in Kiribati, 12.5 per cent of the total land area will be vulnerable with a one-metre rise in sea level. Saltwater intrusion is already ruining taro patches and spoiling well water. Houses are being flooded and coastlines are receding.
At least two small islets have already disappeared in Kiribati. In Tuvalu, sea levels have risen by 20 to 30 centimetres in the past 100 years, flooding lowlands. Coastal erosion is eating away at the nine islands that make up the country and saltwater intrusion is adversely affecting drinking water and food production. In Australia, 8000 people live on permanently inhabited islands in the Torres Strait. On some of the low-lying islands parts of the interior are below sea level.
Although emissions targets and economic sustainability made it onto the APEC agenda, the already desperate situation of many people who live in the Asia-Pacific region did not.
Oxfam has emphasised that the response of governments needs to be the same as any country or population facing an emergency or disaster — we need to help.
For most of the emergencies that have been created by climate change, there are two possible responses: adapt or relocate. In Tuvalu, where the entire land mass consists of low-lying atolls, the population is left with no choice but to evacuate.
In other cases, such as Papua New Guinea, affected people can be moved to higher ground. In either case, the question is who should pay — those who can afford it (developed countries) or those who can’t (developing countries)?
Oxfam’s Adapting to Climate Change report shows that the costs of adaptation in developing countries will be about $17 billion a year and that Australia’s fair share (based on our contribution as a nation to global carbon emissions) would be $1.7 billion towards developing countries’ adaptation needs.
This amount clearly dwarfs both the contributions of the Federal Government to developing country adaptation and Labor’s new pledge of $150 million over three years.
The effects of climate change across the Asia-Pacific region are endemic but not uniform. The APEC summit ignored the immediate situation of countries and communities that are already having to adapt.
Adaptation funding must be provided to these people immediately so that they do not suffer any further from a situation that is not of their making.
Equity is at the heart of the climate change debate. Those affected the most are, perversely, those least responsible. As a major emitter, Australia has a moral obligation to act now and help its neighbours. We have the means, but now we need the political will.

This opinion piece was published in The Age on 14 September 2007