With rising sea levels, Pacific island states will look to Australia for leadership or refuge, writes Jim Clough.
IT HAS BEEN two months since Scott Morrison crusaded the Liberal-National Coalition to a surprising victory at the Federal Election. With another three years at the helm, the Morrison-led Coalition promises to continue their tough approach to asylum seekers and border protection.
Efforts to tackle the greatest crisis of our time, climate change, will be left on the back burner.
This is nothing new. For the last decade, successive Coalition governments have dragged their feet on taking serious action on climate change mitigation and adaptation. Instead, incrementalism and mere symbolism, the glorification of coal and a smattering of climate change denialism rule the day.
On the other hand, ensuring our borders remain free of asylum seekers, I mean, "economic migrants and other irregular maritime arrivals", has been a multi-decade national obsession. It’s a winning electoral strategy after all: demonise the boat arrivals, accuse the opposition of being weak, promise to get tough on borders then rake in the votes.
Asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australian shores have tended to hail from the Middle East and the wider Asian continent. But this composition is likely to change with more arrivals in the ensuing decades coming from Australia’s backyard: the South Pacific, home to a constellation of over half-a-dozen Pacific Island nation-states, many of whom look to us for guidance and stewardship over the region because of our sheer relative economic, political and military might.
This will occur against a backdrop of greater migration trends worldwide, in countries such as Bangladesh, because of the climate emergency.
It is a well-established fact that sea levels are rising around the world and that many of these micro-states in the South Pacific are facing an existential crisis, their homes are literally sinking into the sea.
But you might ask, why should this be our concern? For one, some of these states have offered their support in our eternal quest to “turn back the boats”, allowing us to build facilities on Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island to warehouse our detainees.
But will it remain the same if these boats not only keep coming from Indonesia but start arriving from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands or Fiji? Let’s not wait to find out.
Our capacity to project power and influence over the region is predicated on our ability to aid and fight for the interests of our pacific neighbours, which are often one and the same as our own: regional stability and cooperation, economic growth and maritime security.
We may be able to plausibly deny the sincerity of the request for asylum by, for example, an irregular Moroccan or Iranian maritime arrival. We will have no such luck, however, if one of our pacific brothers or sisters arrive on our doorstep following the steady erosion of their homes brought on by our appetite to consume and degrade the planet.
Underscoring the need for urgency, an ABC freedom of information (FOI) request for internal Australian Defence Force (ADF) briefing papers revealed our military’s growing concern for climate change’s pernicious effects from rising sea levels to extreme weather events that will lead to a sharp increase in irregular maritime migration.
And as people fight over fewer and fewer resources, conflicts will increase in frequency and scale.
Moreover, ADF Chief Angus Campbell has warned in a private speech that an ascendant China could potentially occupy islands in the Pacific following a massive exodus from the region should the harmful effects of climate change continue unabated.
Yes, our total carbon (CO2) emissions is a small percentage, but per capita, we are one of the largest emitters in the world. As Australians, we pride ourselves for punching above our weight internationally. Our armed forces are admired and respected, our diplomats are influential and respected by states bigger than our own.
Surely, we can punch above our weight against climate change too. Or at the very least, not continue to fall behind the pack.
This is not progressive "green" politics. This is about national security. This is actually protecting the borders. This is about the future and longevity of Australia and our place in the south Pacific.
Jim Clough is an Indonesian-born Melbourne writer currently finishing his Masters of Public Policy at RMIT University. He has previously written for the Jakarta Post in Indonesia.
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