COP21 & Australia: The Big Polluting Island Down South

2015 Honours Fellow Elisabeth Wale explains why COP21 should be taken seriously

In response to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s recent ‘oceanic slip up’, Tony de Brum, the Marshall Island’s foreign minster, gave Australia a new tagline. It wasn’t “So where the bloody hell are you”, but rather “the big polluting island down south”.

With the Paris Climate Conference COP21 just days away, this tagline is particularly pertinent. It speaks not only of the stronghold that the fossil fuel industry has over Australia’s politicians and the nation’s way of living, but also of our international and regional responsibilities.

COP21 is a conference of 196 signatory Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an environmental treaty that provides a space for international negotiation of globally blinding limits on greenhouse gas emissions. This conference is particularly important as it represents one of the last opportunities for world governments to come to an agreement that will enable global temperatures to be limited to 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Forecasts of a world at more than 2° Celsius include crop failures and destruction of agricultural land, increases in the frequency and extremity of daily temperatures, increase in floods and droughts, sea-level rise and loss of the ice caps, coral bleaching and death of reefs around the world (including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), potential extinction of species with low adaptability or mobility, human and animal migration and, well, I could go on, though it does become a bit morbid.

Now, granted, Australia is not the only country to have contributed to global warming since industrialisation. Further, Australia will not be affected by all of the above, with developing countries more likely to be negatively impacted by climate change than developed. So why should our politicians take COP21 seriously?

Well, first because Australia has contributed significantly to the creating the problem. Australia has throughout its recent history been heavily reliant upon a carbon energy economy, with its domestic energy supply provided overwhelmingly by fossil fuels. The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that in the 2010-2011 period 96% of Australia’s energy came from non-renewable sources with only 4% of the energy sourced from renewables. Globally, Australia is the third biggest polluter on a per-capita basis, following Qatar and the United States, and to top it off Australia is also one of the biggest exporters of fossil fuels. Thus, as Australia has been (and still is) a large contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, we are historically responsible for likewise contributing to its abatement.

Second, climate change is not a fair agent. It does not target everyone equally nor does it leave the perpetrators worse off. Instead, the effects of climate change are felt most keenly by vulnerable populations, often in developing nations including some of our Pacific neighbours. These populations have contributed least to the problem and do not have the needed infrastructure for mitigation or adaptation. As a capable, developed nation and as fellow human beings we have a moral imperative to help those less fortunate than ourselves, especially when their misfortune is a result of our actions. This moral responsibility spans internationally, regionally and locally and is not only for the current populations but also for future generations.

If you’re not sold on the moral responsibility then it is necessary to consider its ramifications in a globalised world. For example, with climate induced impacts such as drought or sea level-rise predicted to induce some levels of human migration, it must be recognised that this will affect not only those forced to migrate but also the international community upon whom the plight of these people will be put.

Finally, if we don’t have the moral fortitude to act for others, we should at least act for ourselves. Australia is not immune to climate change. Only in the last few days we’ve seen the impact that our continual record-breaking temperatures have had on communities and agriculture. Further, low lying areas of Australia, including six islands in the Torres Strait and other coastal regions, are currently facing flooding from sea-level rise. Not only does this cause people to move further inland, but it is also contributing to malaria outbreaks, loss of ancestral graves, increased salinity in drinking and agricultural waters among much more. Even the Sydney Opera House is considered at risk, with forecasts of more severe storm events, ocean acidification and rising sea levels.

While the reality of a 2°C warmer world is worrying, I don’t write this to fear-monger, only to gently nudge our politicians, our representatives, to take the COP21 negotiations seriously.



2015 SEI Honours Fellow Elisabeth Wale
Her Honours thesis examined why climate induced migration has been so powerfully commandeered by a security logic, which actors have been substantially influential in constructing this narrative and how they have done so. This area of research was chosen in order to enable a step towards safeguarding the rights of climate refugees and to provide for an informed discourse on the issue area.

Image: Le Centre d’Information sur l’Eau ‘Paris 2015 – COP 21’ via Flickr Commons