Much is being said lately about the need to stay or leave the Paris Agreement. One of the excuses being proffered for Australia remaining is because of our Pacific neighbours.
Seven of the 10 most disaster prone countries are in our region. Adverse climatic events exacerbate existing development challenges and constrain economic growth. They affect oceans, fisheries, marine and coastal ecosystems and have the potential to affect the stability and security of the region.
Melissa Price and former Kiribati president Anote Tong. CREDIT: FAIRFAX MEDIA
Now, whether one believes that CO2 is plant food, vital for the health of the planet where the climate has been changing since the beginning of time, or whether one falls into the "Al Gore camp" living a state of nervousness because Armageddon is just over the horizon, it remains important that we deal with today’s realities and the impact of climate change.
There will be another cyclone or tsunami—this is the reality of the Pacific.
In his recent speech to the Asia Society Australia, Scott Morrison committed that “we’ll work more closely than ever with the Pacific Islands on those issues of greatest concern to them – including climate solutions and disaster resilience”.
We contributed another $200 million to the Green Climate Fund. As its co-chair, Australia supported Pacific projects to mitigate against adverse climatic events and resilience development such as for coastal adaptation in Tuvalu, water supply and wastewater management in Fiji, climate information services in Vanuatu; integrated flood management in Samoa; and, for the Asian Development Bank’s Pacific Renewable Energy Investment Program.
It is therefore regrettable that our good work and practical support for the Pacific has been recently damaged by an Environment Minister on "L-plates" through the unfortunate incident with former President Tong of Kiribati. It demonstrated a lack of diplomacy, understanding and respect for one of our nearest neighbours.
While there may have been differences of opinion on issues during my tenure as minister for international development and the Pacific, I found that respect and diplomacy can sit alongside frank and forthright discussion.
At the 2016 Pacific Island Forum leaders, including then prime minister Turnbull, adopted the Disaster Risk Management and Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific. A key component of this is the Pacific Resilience Fund.
Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with Prime Minister of Vanuatu Charlot Salawi during the Pacific Islands Forum last year.CREDIT:AAP
If a school, community hall or hospital falls down or is damaged, funds would be required for its repair or rebuild. Those funds would need to come from scarce government resources of the country affected or from development assistance from countries like Australia. Alternatively, the country affected could seek concessional funding from the World Bank or the ADB or seek other external or commercial loan options.
It is far more cost effective to climate proof that school, that hospital or that community hall in the first place, before it is damaged or destroyed.
This is what the Pacific Resilience Fund is about. It will enable Pacific Island Countries to borrow small amounts at very concessional levels to do basic climate proofing to their vital community infrastructure. It is a key regional priority being driven by the Pacific Island Forum and its Secretary-General, Dame Meg Taylor. It is a priority which as the responsible minister, I sought to galvanise support for. The Pacific wants to start helping itself. This is what the Pacific needs and we should be responding accordingly.
Capitalisation of the fund is estimated to be about $1.5 billion. The fund would be independent, transparent and above all, would ensure that lending from the fund would not entail Pacific island countries being beholden to any one country.
Cyclone Pam storm surges in Kiribati.CREDIT:PLAN INTERNATIONAL AUSTRALIA
So instead of contributing to the Green Climate Fund or to entities such as Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (to which we also contributed $1 billion) and it’s associated Belt and Road initiatives, climate action starts at home by helping our neighbours and supporting them in the establishment of this key initiative.
As a key development partner in the Pacific, Australia should lead the way and commit to substantial capitalisation of the fund and in so doing, encourage other development partners in our region to do likewise. A good start would be to dedicate a sizeable portion from the newly announced $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific with a direct grant to the capitalisation of the fund.
It’s all very well to support the development of high priority infrastructure, but before you do so, you need to secure basic infrastructure like schools, hospitals and community halls so that they remain intact during storms and cyclones. This is the critical infrastructure that is vital to resilience building in villages and communities across the Pacific.
Our neighbours need our help in practical and meaningful ways. A Pacific Resilience Fund is a far more sensible and practical way of helping the people of the Pacific as they face the day to day challenges of storms and cyclones. Let’s help the Pacific to help itself.
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is the former minister for international development and the Pacific