China’s new Solomon Islands pact highlights how ignoring climate change affects security

Climate Economy

China’s new Solomon Islands pact highlights how ignoring climate change affects security

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The Australian government’s poor record on climate change has opened the door for China to gain a strong foothold in the Pacific.

It was a bold statement from a typically conservative military expert: “Climate change is the greatest threat to Australia’s security,” said former Chief of the Australian Defence Force Admiral Chris Barrie at a recent energy security and climate summit in Sydney. He could easily have broadened that statement to include regional and even global security.

Barrie’s comments came as the governments of China and the Solomon Islands, just over 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) from Australia, announced a new joint security agreement. The six-article framework agreement raised concern because it allows China to operate military and intelligence operations and become involved in the police, military and law enforcement of the Pacific nation. 

“This has been a failure … an absolute failure of foreign policy,” said former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, of the same political party as current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in a media interview in late April. “This is a hose you have to hold, to put it bluntly.” Turnbull was referring to a much-maligned quote from Morrison during Australia’s worst-ever Black Summer fires during which 33 were killed and 24 million hectares burned. When asked what he was doing to stop the fires Morrison’s response was, “I don’t hold a hose, mate.” 

Turnbull linking the political situation in the Pacific and deadly Australian fires says much about the country’s dire climate change situation. The current Morrison government, a coalition of two parties that have moved far to the right and are closely tied to the fossil fuel sector, has failed to pass any meaningful climate change policy for eight years, despite pressure from their voting public, Australian business, the United Nations, partner nations such as the U.S. and, of course, their Pacific neighbors. 

In 2015, the Minister for Defence Peter Dutton, current and previous Prime Ministers Morrison and Tony Abbot were caught out by a live microphone before an event joking about Pacific countries facing rising seas. Dutton is heard laughingly saying, “… Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.” Poor taste indeed comes from a nation that is one of the largest exporters of coal and LNG in the world with no plans to stop, even as cyclones and sea-level rise threaten to devastate many Pacific nations.

“It doesn’t matter where the money comes from. Whether it comes from God or Satan, we will take it.”

At the time of the announcement with China, Provincial Premier of the Solomons Watson Qoloni, stated bluntly that his country needed to find funds to address climate impacts, including relocating people and communities out of harm’s way. 

“It doesn’t matter where the money comes from,” he said. “Whether it comes from God or Satan, we will take it.”

Meanwhile back in Australia, the Solomons-China agreement comes as the country heads to its first federal election in three years. With climate change as the number one issue of concern for Australian voters and businesses, you’d think that would mean a real effort by the major parties to put forward policy solutions. Alas, not so.

This week, one of the sitting government’s members declared its net zero by 2050 policy “dead.” To try to divert from another leadership failure — remember that half of the east coast of Australia burned three years ago and much of the rest of it has seen deadly floods over the last four months  — the Prime Minister has taken to making stuff up about his rival party, today accusing them of proposing “A CARBON TAX!” 

This is a cautionary tale of what happens when a large, wealthy nation ignores the biggest issue of concern for its neighbors.

This would all be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic. Australia’s complete failure to address climate change has left it and the region vulnerable. The impacts of extreme heat and weather are already hitting Australia and nearby island nations harder than most countries, exactly as long predicted by scientists. But that’s just the start of the challenge. 

China’s cozy new relationship with the Solomons is a cautionary tale of what happens when a large, wealthy nation ignores the biggest issue of concern for its neighbors. For more than a decade, Pacific leaders have asked nicely, not so nicely and all but begged Australia to step up and lead on climate change. Is it any wonder that China, whose leaders seem to understand the issue — and potential of climate change and has deep pockets — is looking like a better regional partner. With 15 nations in the Pacific facing the same challenges as the Solomons, who might be next in wanting to talk to China? 

“Australia currently has no credible climate policy,” Barrie said, and “… has squandered two decades over which opportunities for a progressive transition to a better energy base are available.” According to Barrie, Australia’s federal election will serve as the most important election ever on the issue of climate change, given that it will decide who will govern the country through a crucial period to 2025 when greenhouse gas emissions need to be slashed.

And of course, it’s not just Australia that is impacted by the new China-Solomons agreement. In nearby New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has warned of Beijing’s “growing assertiveness” in the Pacific. But she also declared two years ago that, “Australia has to answer to the Pacific on climate change.” It hasn’t. 

The U.S. this week sent two top officials to the Solomons, Fiji and Papua New Guinea to discuss the China agreement. The White House warned that it would not take kindly to a permanent Chinese military base being established in the region. That’s far more than Australia has done. Prime Minister Scott Morrison reportedly has yet to pick up the phone to call Solomon’s Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare since the announcement with China. 

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report makes for alarming reading on what the world can expect due to increasing emissions and global warming. It concludes that “Climate change is contributing to humanitarian crises where climate hazards interact with high vulnerability” — and that means the small Pacific island nations. Australia’s failure to accept or act on that climate change future has created the world’s next security problem.

Written by

Blair Palese

Blair Palese is a writer and project manager on a range of climate change projects. In 2009, she cofounded 350.org Australia and was its CEO for 10 years. Previously, she was a communications director for Greenpeace International and Greenpeace USA, head of international public relations for the Body Shop, editor-in-chief of Greenpages magazine, and worked at Washington Monthly and ABC.