Australia faces Pacific Islands Forum showdown on climate

Australia’s future role in the ­Pacific Islands Forum may ­depend on whether it takes a strong position in helping its smaller neighbours combat ­climate change, the President of Kiribati has warned.

The Forum is meeting this week in Papua New Guinea’s Port Moresby, with leaders hoping to thrash out a shared position to take to the UN Paris climate change conference in December.

Kiribati President Anote Tong Tuesday said the future of his nation was threatened by climate change and raised the prospect of Australia and New Zealand being asked to leave the grouping if they undermined a consensus on taking serious ­action.

He challenged Tony Abbott, who arrives at the Forum on Wednesday to attend the tomorrow’s leaders’ retreat, to swap shoes with those leaders representing island states that were already being ravaged by climate change. 

“If Tony Abbott was here, facing the situation we are facing now, what kind of an answer would he expect from me as prime minister of Australia?” he asked.

“Our relationship ... is about development,” Tong said. “That’s been the basis of our relationship in the past. It’s never been about survival. But I think this is the test ... And I don’t think the survival of our future generations is up for negotiation.

“The question is, will this grouping be strong enough to do the right thing?”

Tong said a declaration to limit global temperature increases to 1.5C — agreed at last week’s Pacific Islands Development Forum in Suva — should not be altered. The Pacific Islands Development Forum is a rival grouping which does not include Australia or New Zealand.

It was established by Fijian leader Frank Bainimarama, who last week used it as a platform to urge Abbott to halt coalmining and “put the survival of your Pacific neighbours before ... your continuing reliance on the dirt­iest of energy sources”.

After embracing Fiji within the Pacific Islands Forum following Bainimarama’s election last year under a new constitution, the Australian government had hoped the rival grouping would quietly lapse.

Tong said there could be no compromise on the 1.5C target. “Those of us who feel that our interests have been compromised — should we stay in or should we walk out?” he said. “Or should we ask those that have a problem with (what is) our bottom line to dissociate themselves?”

The regional summit began on Monday with a meeting of seven smaller island states which are threatened by climate change — the Cook Islands, ­Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau and Tuvalu.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sosene Sopoaga said Tong’s sentiments were “strongly shared by the leaders of the smaller island states”. “We are simply seeking the right of small island states to survive,” he said. “All the Pacific ­island states are onboard ... it’s up to Australia to respond, but this is coming from leaders of small islands states who are already injured.”.

But the Forum chair, Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, held out hope that the meeting would agree on a declaration acceptable to all.

“The forum has been withstanding many challenges for many, many years, so I don't think that our own differences of opinion or disagreements will be a cause of the disintegration of the forum itself,” he said.

“I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of the forum leaders' meeting that is going to take place over the next few days, but we will reach a common understanding one way or the other during the course of this meeting.”

He expressed confidence that as “a very good friend of the Pacific”, Abbott would be willing to hear the voices of those calling for more ambitious action. “We will give him every opportunity to participate fully at the upcoming meeting,” he said.