Opinion

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Pacific Island Forum

Rosemary Lyster on the Australian Government’s “pathological, ideological opposition” to stepping up to the realities of climate change.

Tafea Province, Vanuatu. Image by Florian de Graaf, via Unsplash.

Rob Harris asks this week in the Sydney Morning Herald whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to the Pacific Island Forum last week amounts to a Pacific ‘step up’ or ‘stuff up’?

Working out which it is depends on what Scott Morrison and his government really think about coal and its contribution to climate change, and what they’re prepared to do about it. We have to remember that Scott Morrison, as Treasurer, brought a lump of coal into Parliament in 2017 and declared ‘This is coal! Don’t be afraid! Don’t be scared! It won’t hurt you! It’s coal! It was dug up by men and women who work and live in the electorates of those who sit opposite.’ He described the Opposition as having a ‘pathological, ideological opposition to coal being an important part of our sustainable and more certain energy future.’

In my view there can’t be a genuine ‘step up’ in the Pacific until the government says out loud: ‘Coal does hurt us – Australians, everyone in the Pacific and everyone around the world.’ To say otherwise is to showcase a ‘pathological, ideological opposition’ to the reality that the burning of coal is a major driver of global climate change. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when coal is burnt, wherever in the world this happens. And we learnt today that Australia is the world’s third-biggest exporter of fossil fuels, behind only Russia and Saudi Arabia. This confirms that despite our small population, Australia is not only a big emitter (14th biggest in the world), but we are also a major exporter of the dangerous products causing the climate crisis.

The Prime Minister is a champion of the resources sector and it is true that coal exports are very important to the Australian economy and to government revenue. However, Australia cannot buy its way out of the climate emergency. Even the strongest economy will be a weak defence as Australia is among the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate risk. In the same way, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack’s insensitive comments seemed to assume that somehow Australia was insulated from climate change and we could help Pacific Islanders who lose their homelands to rising seas simply by offering them fruit picking jobs in Australia. The reality is that good agricultural jobs will be few and far between unless Australia and the world tackles the climate crisis.

If this is really what the leadership of the Coalition government thinks then I fear that the ‘step up’ is destined to become yet another ‘stuff up’ in the quest for an effective climate policy. Unbelievably Australia still doesn’t have one, Australia’s emissions continue to increase and there seems little likelihood that we will meet our Paris Agreement targets, let alone the more stringent ones that are sure to come.

The clear and consistent advice from the world’s scientific community, as summarised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that climate change is happening and happening fast. It is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if emissions are not reduced. But what is really important to understand is that ‘[e]very extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5ºC or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes.’ Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. The Morrison Government has refused to adopt these science-based targets.

The key words here for Scott Morrison are ‘every extra bit of warming matters’. It also means every bit of coal that is burnt matters, right down to the last tonne. This really matters to people in the Blue Pacific and it also really matters to Australians. People in the Pacific are already experiencing the effects of cyclones, droughts, floods, storm surge, sea level rise and inundation. Climate change is contributing, in one way or another, to all of these events and disasters occur when they intersect with Pacific Islanders’ existing vulnerabilities and their exposure to them. In Australia we are being confronted with a litany of climate impacts, from record heatwaves, coral bleaching, extreme rainfall events, and persistent record-breaking drought.

The bottom line is that whether you are living in the Pacific or in Australia, and whether you are mining coal or whether you are picking fruit, everyone is being impacted by climate change and the burning of coal. It’s just not feasible for Scott Morrison to refuse to deal with the impacts of Australia’s coal mining and then say ‘We want a viable, sustainable, successful, sovereign, independent set of Pacific Island states. And for them to maintain and realise their way of life’. The Pacific Islands are extremely vulnerable and exposed to climate-induced extreme and slow onset events. For example, in 2015 Cyclone Pam caused damage of US$450 million, more than half of Vanuatu’s yearly GDP with 100,000 people homeless and up to 70% of the nation’s 69,000 households damaged. That means half of Tuvalu’s population was displaced. Cyclone Winston in 2016, meanwhile, caused damage of US$650 million in Fiji, or 14% of GDP.

The Australian government’s repurposing of $500 million in aid funding to assist the Pacific engage in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction is a good thing. It’s vital in fact. But it’s a ‘stuff up’ to continually refuse to acknowledge the harm which coal is inflicting on populations, economies and ecosystems everywhere.

As the NSW Land and Environment Court Chief Judge Brian Preston said earlier this year, in refusing consent to an open cut coal mine in the Gloucester valley, the proposal for the mine was made at the wrong time. This was ‘because the GHG emissions of the coal mine and its coal product will increase global total concentrations of GHGs at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in GHG emissions. These dire consequences should be avoided.’

The Australian government, and all political parties, need to accept the science and have honest conversations about a just transition away from coal towards industries and electricity systems that support Australia’s economy, workers, communities and ecosystems from the harms caused by coal. That would be a ‘step up’ for everyone, everywhere.


Rosemary Lyster is the Professor of Climate and Environmental Law at the University of Sydney Law School and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law. Rosemary’s special area of research expertise is Climate Justice and Disaster Law. She has published two books and numerous other publications in this area. Her books are Rosemary Lyster and Robert M. Verchick (eds.) Climate Disaster Law (Edward Elgar: 2018) and Rosemary Lyster Climate Justice and Disaster Law (Cambridge University Press: 2016). Rosemary has been selected by the Australian Financial Review as one of the 2018 ‘100 Women of Influence’ in the Public Policy category.In 2015, Rosemary was appointed by the Victorian government to a three person Independent Review Committee (IRC) to review the state’s Climate Change Act 2010 and make recommendations to place Victoria as a leader on climate change. The government accepted 32 of the IRC’s 33 Recommendations which were included in the new Climate Change Act 2017. In 2013, Rosemary was appointed a Herbert Smith Freehills Visiting Professor at Cambridge Law School and was a Visiting Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009 and in 2014. In other areas of Environmental Law, Rosemary specialises in Energy and Climate Law and Water Law.