FOR the people of the Maldives, the prediction from the Copenhagen International Climate Congress last month of a sea level rise of one to two metres by 2100 carried extra sting. Sitting just 1.5metres above the sea, the Maldives future existence is at stake.
Many similarly vulnerable Pacific island nations are now feeling the impacts first hand. They too know they are fighting a losing battle against the encroaching forces of a changing climate. They want Australia to take action to give them the best chance of survival.
The CSIRO has been warning for years about the vulnerability of the Asia-Pacific region to the impact of climate change, without substantial action from Australia. In its report, Climate Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, the CSIRO warned the region was particularly vulnerable to coastal communities being inundated by rising seas, the loss of wetlands and coral bleaching, shifts in climate resulting in disease and heat-related mortality, and the net effects of climate change on regional economies.
At the CSIRO's Greenhouse 2009 conference in Perth, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong announced Australia would spend $20 million to help its neighbours in the Pacific and East Timor better understand how climate change would affect them, as part of a broader $150 million commitment to meet high-priority climate adaptation needs in vulnerable countries in our region.
On the surface, this pledge from Australia is a step in the right direction. Yet, in the context of Australia's emissions target of just a 5per cent reduction by 2020, and our refusal to approve climate refugee status requests from small Pacific nations such as Tuvulu, Senator Wong's announcement raises more questions than it answers.
For starters, it remains unclear whether the $150 million will be used for actual "adaptation" or whether it will be confined to further science and monitoring. Based on current breakdowns, the money will be distributed between the Department of Climate Change, AusAid, the Global Environment Fund and the World Bank. That means only a small percentage will go to the Pacific islands to deal with actual adaptation strategies.
This is reminiscent of a recent Guardian investigation revealing that although $18 billion had been pledged globally to assist poor countries adapt to climate impacts, only $900 million had been forthcoming. So far, the pledges have not matched the outcomes, and it is the world's poorest who are getting hit hardest.
Wong's $20 million pledge is a tiny drop in the ocean of needs and impending disasters when we start to measure the human and financial magnitude of the problem.
Since 2005, the people of the Carteret Islands (120 kilometres north-east of Bougainville in the Pacific Ocean) have been in a process of forced migration due to rising seas. The 2500 inhabitants of the islands are in the process of resettlement in Bougainville, putting them among the world's first "environmental refugees".
In PNG, extreme weather conditions have increased in frequency and ferocity in recent years. A huge flood in the Oro Province in November 2007 killed 70people and destroyed 95 per cent of the road and bridge infrastructure. The cost of repairing this infrastructure is estimated to run into the billions of dollars.
The injustice of climate change is that its effects are falling most heavily on the poor - those who bear the least responsibility for causing the problem and have the least capacity to adapt. While a country with a heavy greenhouse footprint such as Australia has the luxury to debate climate change, some low-lying island nations are likely to disappear off the surface of the earth altogether.
As a country that has disproportionately contributed to creating the problem of global warming (on a per-capita basis), Australia has an obligation to lead by example in reducing its own emissions, and to help its poorer neighbours to cope with its impacts and implement alternative development pathways.
Often lacking the infrastructure to even tackle day-to-day issues of social deprivation, health and hunger, the developing world has few resources left to respond to environmental circumstances in a way that might mitigate long-term impacts. Countries with poor democratic structures, weak borders and high incidence of corruption are most vulnerable to the potential for climate change triggering large-scale humanitarian crises.
Given that our targets of 5 to 15per cent emission cuts by 2020 will, according to all available science, lead us on a course that will see increasing problems in the Asia-Pacific region as a direct result of climate change, a $20 million pledge is very modest indeed.
The bigger question is how Australia will contribute to the global effort to radically reduce carbon emissions in the short term, and play a role in ensuring a strong new global emissions reduction treaty is signed at Copenhagen later this year. To achieve this, we will need to set credible science-based targets; we need 25 to 40 per cent cuts by 2020.
In a paper presented at the recent climate talks in Poznan, the Alliance of Small Island States called on the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40 per cent by 2020, and more than 95 per cent by 2050. These countries know their very existence is at stake.
Responding to the news from Copenhagen, Maldives President Mahamed Nasheed has pledged that his country will no longer be part of the "Faustian Pact" the world has with carbon by becoming the first country to go carbon neutral. "Today," he said, "the Maldives will opt out of that pact." But, where will Australia stand?Source: business.theage.com.au