Australia must move on from a “crisis mentality” as it seeks to reset its relationship with Pacific island countries by rejoining a key UN climate fund, a think tank says.
Australia must do more than position itself as a first responder to natural disasters to become “an effective climate ally with the Pacific”, according to a series of policy papers to be published on Tuesday.
Rejoining the Green Climate Fund – an UN-backed scheme to assist developing countries that Scott Morrison rejected – is among the proposals outlined by the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D).
The AP4D program leader, Melissa Conley Tyler, said climate policy had undermined the idea of Australia and the Pacific as a “family” because Pacific leaders had been asking: “If you are family, you will take this issue more seriously?”
The think tank argues the effects and root causes of the climate crisis should be Australia’s central foreign policy concern in the Pacific.
The policy paper – called “What does it look like for Australia to be an effective climate ally with the Pacific” – states the reluctance of successive governments to set ambitious emissions reduction targets “has hindered Australia’s diplomatic efforts in the Pacific”.
It says building trust with Pacific island countries supports Australia’s broader geopolitical interests while warning measures such as Australia’s “Pacific step-up” could be seen as lacking credibility if perceived only in response to China’s increased presence.
The paper notes that China is aware of the importance of Pacific relationships to Australia’s foreign policy “and is making considerable effort to enhance its relationships in the region, including opening a Climate and the Pacific Friendship Centre”.
The paper urges Australia to join the Pacific “in a regional diplomatic bloc that can drive global ambition on climate change mitigation”, backed by a commitment to transitioning away from fossil fuels domestically and acknowledging coal has a limited export lifespan.
“Australia needs to revisit its contribution to climate change as a major emitter and fossil fuel exporter through an ambitious domestic climate policy and work with Pacific island countries through processes of multilateral diplomacy to drive global ambition to reduce emissions,” the paper says.
It suggests that Australia should have an annual discussion within the Pacific, distinct from the Pacific Islands Forum, with a specific climate focus called a “1.5 Track Dialogue for 1.5 Degrees”.
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The paper urges Australia to rejoin the Green Climate Fund and push for the scheme to improve access for Pacific island countries.
Australia stepped back from the fund in 2018 and has largely provided climate aid through bilateral arrangements, including committing to give hundreds of millions in funding to help Pacific nations invest in renewable energy and climate and disaster resilience.
The policy paper suggests that Australia should also engage with Pacific island countries in the emerging debate calling for reparation for loss and damage caused by carbon emitters.
This proposal comes a day after the new Albanese government was urged to prove its commitment to climate action by backing a campaign led by Vanuatu to see international law changed to recognize climate harm.
The foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, has visited Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and the Solomon Islands quickly since being sworn in last month. She has used these visits to emphasize the new government’s 43% emissions reduction target for 2030 and that Australia is listening to the region.
Conley Tyler said any change of government provided an opportunity to reset relationships and “clear barnacles”, but it was important for Australia to be seen as “a generational partner”.
“It’s all about the long-term. That’s important. Our current discussions have a bit of a crisis mentality about them. We don’t want to be thinking as short-term, transactional,” she said.
Conley Tyler added that the options papers to be launched on Tuesday proposed a vision for “using all elements of statecraft to ensure Australia can build a better-shared future with the Pacific region”.
The AP4D papers cover other issues, including economic recovery, security, and digital resilience. They include a proposal to shift away from funding big infrastructure projects towards maintenance, small-scale capital works, and climate adaptation.
Australian policymakers are urged to “think big to achieve a significant reset in security cooperation”, including the idea of a new multi-agency organization that partners with Pacific countries to respond to security challenges.
The think tank said the papers were drawn up after gathering input from dozens of experts from the development, diplomacy, and defense communities and consultations with Pacific stakeholders.