Neighbours under threat

Campaigns and Advocacy, Media Releases article written on the 08 Sep 2008

Poor countries around the world are feeling the impact of climate change, but the answers are in the industrialised world, writes Oxfam Australia’s Media Coordinator Laurelle Keough.

Tuvalu, a small island nation in the Pacific, has in recent years lost about one metre of land around the circumference of its largest atoll due to changes in storm conditions and rising sea levels.

One of the lowest lying countries in the world, Tuvalu’s highest point stands a mere four-and-a-half metres above sea level while half of the population of 11,000 live just three metres above sea level.

"We live in constant fear of the adverse impacts of climate change," Prime Minister Saufatu Sopoanga says. "The sea level rising and more severe weather events loom as a growing threat to our entire population. The threat is real and serious, and is of no difference to a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us."

Salt-water intrusion reduces the land’s productive capabilities and has already

affected communal crop gardens on six of Tuvalu’s eight islands. Some families have taken to growing taro, a root staple, in metal buckets to avoid the saline soils. In addition, the increased coral bleaching from rising ocean temperatures is depleting local fish stocks.

Tuvalu is the first country where residents have been forced to evacuate because of rising sea levels, with nearly 3,000 Tuvaluans already relocated. Tuvaluan Governor-General Sir Tomasi Papuas says: "Taking us as environmental refugees is not what Tuvalu is after in the long run."

"We want the islands of Tuvalu and our nation to remain permanently and not be submerged as a result of greed and uncontrolled consumption of industrialised countries. We want our children to grow up the way we grew up in our own islands and in our own culture."

Tuvalu is one of many Pacific island countries that face the prospect of disappearing completely. For people living in low-lying islands and river deltas in countries such as Papua New Guinea, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, the negative results of climate change are already a stark reality, with rising seas and salt water inundation contributing to crop losses, destruction of fresh water sources and flooding.

Here in Australia, people have been inundated with messages on climate change. Media commentary was arguably at its most intense in early July when Professor Ross Garnaut handed down his draft report on climate change. Among other warnings, Professor Garnaut said that Australia faced geo-political and economic risk if it did not help its developing neighbours cope with climate change.

"We live in a region of developing countries, which are in weaker positions to adapt to climate change than wealthy countries with robust political and economic institutions," Professor Garnaut said in the report. "The problems of our neighbours would inevitably become our problems."

Two weeks after the draft report, the Federal Government’s green paper proposed a carbon reduction scheme, which sets a limit on how much carbon pollution industry can produce.

Oxfam Australia executive director Andrew Hewett said the green paper placed too much emphasis on actions that developing countries need to take to reduce emissions and not enough on what developed countries should be doing to support them.

"The Government’s green paper should have tackled the injustice at the heart of climate change — that poor people in developing countries, who are the most affected, are least responsible for causing climate change," Mr Hewett said.

"As a regional leader and a country that is one of the highest per capita polluters in the world, Australia has a responsibility to assist its Pacific neighbours, especially considering they have a negligible carbon footprint."

It is understandable that Australians are focused on climate change impacts in this country and how proposed action might hit the hip-pocket of individuals and business. But for people in developing countries — the working families just outside our borders — climate changeis already, literally, a matter of survival.

Climate change seriously threatens poor people’s lives and livelihoods, affecting food and water supplies, health, sanitation and homes. Developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change because they rely more heavily on their natural resources than developed countries, and have a lower capacity to cope with environmental hazards and shocks.

In response to the Garnaut report, Make Poverty History — a coalition of more than 60 aid agencies and community organisations, including Oxfam Australia — released its own report See the bigger picture: act on climate change.

The report urges the Rudd Government to:

  • establish an international coalition to accept climate change refugees when a country becomes uninhabitable due to rising sea levels;
  • assist developing countries to access clean technologies;
  • provide new livelihoods programs for farmers and small producers;
  • help developing countries prepare for disasters;
  • use emissions trading scheme revenues to not only reduce Australia’s own greenhouse emissions and assist low-income households, but help developing countries cope with the impacts of climate change; and
  • set a strong target to reduce our emissions and encourage other developed countries to set similarly strict targets.

Mr Hewett said the G8 Summit in Japan in July failed to tackle the critical climate change issues — endorsing a commitment to halve global emissions by 2050 but with no agreed baseline year or mid-term targets, and a USD $6 billion pledge to the World Bank for climate investment funds that will come out of existing aid budgets.

"At this rate, by 2050 the world will be cooked and the G8 leaders will be long forgotten," Mr Hewett said. "We need 95 per cent cuts of 1990 levels by 2050 and emissions to peak and start falling by 2015.

"Developed countries need to set short-term targets. They need to reduce their collective emissions by no less than 25–40 per cent of 1990 levels by the year 2020 to give the world a better than even chance of avoiding dangerous climate change."

Mr Hewett said Australia needed to show leadership at the United Nations meeting on Climate Change in Poznan, Poland, in December, to help achieve a global deal on climate change. The Poznan meeting is one of several to be held in the lead-up to the crucial Copenhagen meeting in December 2009, where countries sign a new agreement to come into force after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires.

"Australia should use its influence with recalcitrant countries like the United States, Canada and Japan, to change their positions and become more pro-active in working towards a fair and equitable post 2012 agreement."