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US-Pacific Partnership could be the catalyst for effective global action on climate

Evan Collis/DFES via Associated Press

Correction: An earlier version of this piece contained an incorrect spelling for Madeleine King.

In the recent declaration from the U.S.-Pacific Partnership, a commitment “to tackling the climate crisis together as a priority” is the third of 11 priorities.

The declaration resolves to bolster Pacific regionalism, advance economic growth and sustainable development, maintain peace and security across the Blue Pacific Continent, prepare to respond to natural disasters and to support economic growth and sustainable development.

An announcement of more than $860 million was expected for a range of programs.

The U.S. sees this agreement as security for the Pacific in the face of growing Chinese influence but many of the small island states see it primarily as a down payment on debt, restitution for climate change caused by the world’s biggest polluters.

Recently at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 13 the President of Vanuatu became the first national leader to call for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels. He said, “Fundamental human rights are being violated, and we are measuring climate change not in degrees of Celsius or tonnes of carbon, but in human lives.”

At their July forum, the Pacific Island leaders declared “a climate emergency that threatens the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of its people and ecosystems”, as evidenced by the “latest science and the daily lived realities in Pacific communities.” This would be their priority at the forthcoming UN climate conference COP 27 in Cairo.

Some of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change are asking for a “climate-related and justice-based” global tax, as a way of funding payments for loss and damage suffered by the developing world and demonstrations are occurring around Africa ahead of the meeting in Cairo seeking reparations.

Denmark and some other small developed countries have already stepped in to make donations.

Since the recent election for prime minster in Australia — dubbed the “climate election”— the country has announced an improved but modest 2030 emissions target of 43 percent but continues walking both sides of the street with fossil fuel interests, accompanied by its close ally, the United States.

For over a decade, the Pacific Island nations have requested Australia cease new gas and coal developments. This has led to frustration and difficult relationships.

The concerns of the Pacific leaders recently increased when Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Madeleine King announced huge offshore increases for oil and gas production and Prime Minister Albanese alluded to protecting onshore gas production from emission controls to aid its export.

The flaw common to the Australian and U.S. governments is that our effort to reduce emissions is based on transition to renewable energy driven by market mechanisms and dependent on electoral constraints. We do not have time. A recent op-ed in the Hill from University of Maine Professor Paul Andrew Mayewski and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Anders Beal explains “The phase-out of fossil fuels is moving in the opposite direction (to what is needed) and represents an existential threat to the planet. Without greater ambition, without serious bipartisan efforts to address the most critical issue of the century, we are leaving behind an unthinkable legacy. We cannot let the planet become uninhabitable for future.” Countless anxious scientists agree.

The facts are that global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 6 percent in 2021 to their highest ever level, and relied heavily on coal to power post-pandemic growth.

This is the kernel of the Western dilemma: Many democratic governments have failed to stop fossil fuel production and have left the task to a transition to renewable energy, which will take several decades. Cessation of fossil fuel production over the next decade would mean sacrifice because industry would be constrained and the standard of living would fall.  A leader would have to successfully explain the sacrifice or be voted out of power. We are deluding ourselves if we currently believe we have such a leader.

We have been fortunate to have such leaders in war but today we have yet to recognize that we are fighting a war for our survival.

The fundamental impediment for democratic leaders to act quickly is a lack of political consensus to act within the short time and indeed to sustain any agreement over the electoral cycle. Clearly, the U.S. is likely to be disabled by internecine political civil war, and Australia impeded by the coalition parties  and to some extent the government failing to recognize the gravity of climate change.

President Biden has repeatedly emphasized the importance of showing that democracy is superior to China’s autocratic model, but this may not be so for if Xi’s leadership becomes for life he can and may well impose necessary policies to have China lead the world in mitigation.

Furthermore, successful democracies depend on all citizens sharing both pain and good fortune. This cannot succeed with gross inequality as exists in Australia, the UK and most obviously in the U.S. where 1 percent of citizens own one-third of the county’s wealth, more than the bottom 90 percent combined.

However, humanity is presented with a task currently not yet commenced. It will be necessary to recognize that personal endeavour and even some rights must be constrained because they harm others. Individualism has to embrace collectivism within the framework of the UN. Acceptance of global climate restitution for fossil fuel usage could be a first step in this urgent journey.

Without this acceptance we soon face a world with more conflict, crop failures and famine, as well as budgets eaten away by billions of dollars needed for the repair of damage from increasing fire, flood, storm and heatwaves.

David Shearman (AM, Ph.D., FRACP, FRCPE) is a professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide, South Australia and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia. He is co-author of “The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy” (2007) commissioned by the Pell Centre for International Relations and Public Policy.

Tags Biden Climate change cop27 Global warming

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