Will Australia stand with the Pacific, or against it?

Australia faces its first climate solidarity test at the Pacific Islands Forum?

Ashwini Prabha, Board Chair, Pacific Islands Climate Action Network and Communication Specialist.


Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s visit to the Pacific Islands several weeks ago was a breath of fresh air for the Pacific. Minister Wong promised a new era in Australian engagement.

To engage in the Pacific, Australia must understand the one issue that is front and centre for all Pacific Island countries - human induced climate change. Climate is an existential crisis for the Pacific. We are on the frontline of climate impacts, including experiencing destructions from increasing Category 5 hurricanes to our disappearing islands. Dialogue or talanoa is an essential part of Pacific culture. But so is action. And Australia is about to face its first climate test at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji from 12-14 July 2022, the first face to face gathering of Pacific leaders since 2019 where climate will be front and center.

We in the Pacific have contributed the least to climate change and are simultaneously the most vulnerable and limited in how much we can adapt to a changing world.

The climate crisis is a human rights crisis, with hundreds of millions of people in vulnerable countries already being denied their fundamental human rights. Rights to food, water, shelter, property, freedom of movement, livelihoods, human health, and right to a healthy environment are already being severely impacted.

Civil society has been at the forefront of demanding climate justice. We will be watching Australia’s actions closely. Australia is by far the highest polluting member country, both through domestic emissions and through its continued, unfettered exports of polluting gas and coal that warms the planet. Under the previous Government, the country was well known for blocking climate action behind the scenes of international meetings. We now wait to see if anything has changed.

One very specific agenda item at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting will be the proposal to support Pacific call for an advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). We urge Australia to not stand in the way, but rather support this Pacific led, global initiative.

By taking the world’s biggest problem to the world’s highest court, civil society supports Forum members' aspirations to secure basic human rights for the future generation and kickstart the rapid emissions decline needed this decade within the Paris Agreement. An advisory opinion would finally consider all aspects of international law through a climate and human rights lens.

Pacific Climate Action Network (PICAN) is a coalition of more than 200 organisations across the Pacific and is part of the civil society alliance supporting this initiative. ICJ Advisory Opinion began as primarily a youth driven initiative for governments to recognize and protect the rights of future generations to live on a healthy and sustainable planet.

Despite writing to the Australian Prime Minister recently, we have yet to hear where Australia will stand on this crucial issue. Ministers of the Organisation for African, Caribbean and Pacific States recently endorsed the initiative, including all Pacific small island developing states. We expect the new wave of diplomatic relations between Australia and the Pacific Islands will see a positive endorsement of this collective call as reflected in the Leaders communique. We hope that Australia has turned the page from climate blocking games over the last decade. If the Australian Government doesn’t come to the Forum with good faith to embrace Pacific led action, like the ICJ Advisory Opinion, it will continue to remain on the wrong side of history whilst the smallest and most vulnerable lead the fight for our common future.