When the lights are on and the cameras are rolling, most government Ministers know that they must at least pretend to believe in and care about the impacts of climate change.
It’s only when they’re alone, and they think they’re safely hidden away from the media’s cameras and microphones, that the unseemly reality is revealed.
The new Environment Minister, Melissa Price has been accused of belittling and insulting the former President of Kiribati and renowned climate advocate Anote Tong at a Canberra restaurant this week.
She reportedly said that he was visiting Australia solely to squeeze money out of the Coalition Government and that this was typical behaviour for leaders from the Pacific Islands.
Minister Price denies the allegations, as well as the claims that she then went on to tell former President Tong to name his price, so that she could whip out her chequebook then and there.
This curt approach is certainly unacceptable from an MP in a foreign policy sense, but it does fit the pattern of a government more concerned with bolstering the coal industry than assisting our Pacific allies with the existential impacts of climate change.
Who could forget the time in 2015 when a stray microphone caught then Immigration Minister Peter Dutton cracking jokes about rising sea levels and the threat the situation posed to our island neighbours?
And then there was the time more recently when, in response to the IPCC 1.5 degree special report, Minister Price wasn’t concerned in the slightest with the potentially devastating impact that climate change could have on the Pacific Islands to our east.
She instead said that it would be ‘irresponsible’ to phase out coal by 2050, as the report said was needed, because carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could possibly be operating at scale by then. This response was as callous as it was misinformed. As Australia Institute research has shown, CCS has been a dismal failure.
The Federal Government has committed over $1.3 billion to CCS to date and has almost nothing to show for it. In Minister Price’s own electorate of Durack, the largest local example of CCS is part of one of the largest LNG projects in the world, the Gorgon Project. The CCS component is running years behind schedule and, far from capturing CO2, it is emitting millions of tonnes of it.
Former President Tong, who suffered the reported verbal haranguing from Minister Price, is a well know advocate for transitioning to a low-carbon global economy.
He was the first world leader to call for a moratorium on coal. It was a bold position at the time, which later came to be supported by many leaders across the world, including throughout the rest of the Pacific.
And while it appears our government is all too willing to insult and humiliate our vulnerable neighbours when it thinks it can get away with it in quiet Canberra restaurants, most Australians actually think Mr Tong is right to take that bold position in defending his nation and the global environment.
The Australia Institute’s Climate of the Nation 2018 survey found that there are more than double the number of Australians who support a moratorium on new coal mines and the expansion of existing ones, than there are those that oppose it.
The same is true for the Australians who are in favour of us helping vulnerable people and developing countries adapt to climate change, who outnumber those who are against it 2 to 1.
When the recording light is on and the camera shutters are clicking, Prime Minister Morrison admits that Australia should remain in the Paris Agreement. But, in the wake of the recent IPCC report, he was quick to slam the door closed on any further financing of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which serves as a source of financial support for developing countries dealing with climate impacts.
The Prime Minister’s comments have effectively wiped out the huge amount of influence Australia had built in the GCF, both from the $200 million given to the fund under Abbott in 2014 and from the determined work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and former Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop in relation to the fund.
It just so happens that Kiribati has its first ever funding proposal in front of the GCF Board this week. They are requesting almost US$30 million to secure South Tarawa’s water supply, which sustains more than half of Kiribati’s population.
This proud, small nation will bear the brunt of catastrophic climate change in coming years and this modest proposal simply seeks to prioritise the safe drinking water of more than 100,000 people over the profits of mostly foreign-owned coal companies.
Considering what Australia’s leaders have said about Kiribati, the Pacific Islands and former President Tong in recent history, publicly backing this proposal is the very least the Morrison Government should do.
Richie Merzian is Climate & Energy Program Director, The Australia Institute. @RichieMerzian