For the people of Maldives, the predictions that emerged from the Copenhagen International Climate Congress last month of one to two metre sea level rise by 2100 carried extra sting. Sitting just 1.5 metres above sea levels, Maldives is now literally fighting for its future existence.
In our region, many similarly vulnerable Pacific Island nations are now feeling the impacts first hand. They too know they are fighting a losing battle against the encroaching forces of a changing climate. They want Australia to take the action required to give them the best chance of long term survival.
Australia's peak scientific body, the CSIRO, has been warning for years about the vulnerability of the Asia Pacific region to the impacts of climate change, without substantial action from Australia.
In its report Climate Change in the Asia/Pacific Region CSIRO warned the Asia Pacific is particularly vulnerable owing to factors including the frequency of coastal communities likely to be inundated by rising sea levels, the loss of wetlands and coral bleaching, shifts in climate resulting in disease and heat-related mortality, and the net effects of climate change on regional economies.
At the CSIRO's Greenhouse 2009 conference in Perth Climate Change Minister Penny Wong announced that Australia will now spend $20 million to help Australia’s neighbours in the Pacific and East Timor better understand how climate change will affect them, as part of a broader $150 million commitment to meet high priority climate adaptation needs in vulnerable countries in our region.
"Climate change has the potential to affect some of the poorest and most vulnerable nations," stated Senator Wong's office, "with challenges including sea level rise, more intense storms and floods, water shortages, and the resulting impacts on water and food security".
On the surface, this pledge from Australia is a step in the right direction.
Yet placed in the context of Australia's current emissions targets of just five per cent emissions reduction target by 2020, and our refusal to approve climate refugee status requests from small Pacific Island nations such as Tuvulu, Penny Wong's announcement raises more questions than it answers.
For starters, it remains unclear whether the $150 million will be used for actual “adaptation” or whether it will be confined to further science and monitoring. Based on current breakdowns, the money will be distributed between the Department of Climate Change, AusAid, the Global Environment Fund and the World Bank. That means only a small percentage will make its way to the Pacific Islands to deal with actual on the ground adaptation strategies.
This is reminiscent of a recent Guardian investigation revealing that although $18 billion has been pledged globally to assist poor countries adapt to climate impacts, only $900 million has been forthcoming. Thus far, the pledges are not matching the outcomes, and it is the worlds poorest who are getting hit hardest.
Senator Wong’s $20 million pledge is a tiny drop in the ocean of needs and impending disasters when we start to measure the human and financial magnitude of the problem.
Since 2005, the people of the Carteret Islands (located 120 kilometres northeast of Bougainville in the Pacific Ocean) have been in a process of forced migration due to rising sea levels. This has meant the 2500 inhabitants of the Islands are currently in the process of resettlement in Bougainville, making them among the worlds first "environmental refugees".
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