Sinking funds, not sinking islands


Humouring the neighbourhood with taxpayers’ money:

Australia will be expected to contribute to a new $US1.5 billion Pacific Resilience Facility to help island nations adapt to the impacts of rising sea levels and more frequent natural disasters, after acknowledging climate change as the region’s biggest security threat.

The final communique agreed by Pacific Islands Forum nations in Nauru last night called on all countries to implement their promised Paris agreement carbon emissions cuts.

The communique, endorsed by Australia and the 17 other PIF nations, included an agreement to establish the new resilience fund, to be financed by member countries and multilateral organisations.

The PIF secretariat hopes the facility will grow to become a $US1.5 billion funding pool to help Pacific nations deal with the effects of climate change, including erosion, salinity in water tables, loss of crops and damaging storms.

Australia, which currently bears 35 per cent of the costs of PIF, will be expected to contribute significantly to the fund.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne approved the communique and a new security pact declaring climate change to the “the single greatest threat” the region, less than a fortnight after the Coalition’s move to drop carbon emissions cuts from energy policy.

Whatever you think of climate change, it’s a great way to get the money from the developed countries’ coffers. The guilt is a strong motivator for generosity, as organised religions have discovered to their benefit a long time ago (“Forgive me Lord for my emissions”). And climate change is sexy: Western donors are more likely to shell out for anything to do with climate change than for any other old and boring aid priorities. It’s what AIDS in Africa used to be twenty years ago. In both cases, the smarter of the recipient countries have learned to reframe their traditional issues of need and concern in light of the latest politically popular causes.

Whether seas are indeed rising is another question altogether. Kiribati is the poster child for the idea that vengeful waters will swallow the new Atlantis of the Pacific for the sins of the belching chimneys elsewhere, in the process unleashing waves of climate refugees. Scientific evidence, however, seems to show that most of Kiribati is actually increasing in size. But even if this widely dispersed collection of island chains (TDC trivia for you: Kiribati is the only country in the world with territory in all four hemispheres) was indeed sinking under the rising seas, there is nothing that Australia could do about it. Even if instead Australia itself disappeared under the weaves, the resulting fall of 1-2 per cent in global emissions would have an unmeasurable impact on Kiribati’s coastline.

Pacific Island Forum is full of countries, which while undoubtedly picturesque and romantic, are among the poorest in the world. Even if most of them were not misgoverned in the first place, they are too small and too isolated to have viable economies and bright future prospects. Many, including Kiribati, have populations of the size that cannot be supported by the scarce land and resources. Most are beset by a  wide range of political, social and economic problems, from corruption through rampant violence against women to alarming rates of obesity, with the consequent impact on health outcomes, which the countries can ill afford.

Climate change “the single greatest threat” to the region? Certainly the single greatest opportunity for extra foreign aid, which accounts for significant proportion of government budgets across the region. The perplexing thing about the Pacific is that it has got so many different problems that in some ways climate change is actually the least of its problems.

(Main picture: Kiribati’s main population centre, Tarawa Atoll; photo Arthur Chrenkoff)