Pacific leaders are meeting in Cairns today for the Pacific Island Forum. In recent years the agenda has been dominated by issues of regional stability including the intervention in the Solomons and more recently the troubling political events in Fiji. But with the forum happening in Australia for the first time in over a decade, and climate change at the top of the international political agenda, other issues are set to dominate.

Pacific Islands are literally on the front line of climate change. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu has raised the prospect of having to relocate their entire country because of rising sea levels and other climate impacts. The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), which includes the Pacific Islands, has become the moral conscience of the international climate negotiations, set to conclude in Copenhagen in December. Their calls for developed countries such as Australia to cut emissions by over 40% within the next decade put Australia’s low and highly conditional target (5-25%) into stark relief.

Australia too is vulnerable to climate change, but it is expected that Kevin Rudd will carefully manage relations during the Forum to keep any strong climate statements out of the Forum Communiqué. There will be some heavy diplomatic manoeuvrings going on behind the scenes to keep climate of the agenda and real emission cuts off the table.

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Australia’s growing coal exports coupled with low emissions targets and the relentless push for loopholes and exemptions in the international climate negotiations put the Rudd Government’s climate position on a collision course with the Pacific. While our neighbours are fighting for their survival, Australia is rapidly doubling our coal export capacity and entrenching our position as the world’s biggest coal pusher.

Despite all of the wrangling and economic fear mongering over the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, any reductions in greenhouse pollution through even a 25% target (the very top end of the Government’s proposal) will be undone many times over by the increased coal exports from NSW and Queensland.

Climate change remains confusing so long as the debate continues to be fixed on numbers, statistics and complex economic instruments. But when you come back to the bottom line, it’s really quite simple. We need to stop putting more CO2 into the atmosphere. To do this we need to stop digging up and burning fossil fuels – and coal is the biggest problem. If we are burning more coal (regardless of where it is burnt), we are making climate change worse.

Having grown up in Central Queensland, I understand the role that coal plays in Queensland and indeed in the national psyche. My father spent his entire working life in the coal industry and as a graduate engineer I spent my first few years out of university building equipment for coal mines. But time moves on. Computers replaced the abacus, mobile phones replaced carrier pidgeons, and renewable energy will replace coal.

It will take a serious effort to make the transition from coal to clean energy in a way that supports coal dependent communities and workers, but the economic impact of moving away from coal will be far less than most people imagine. In Queensland, tourism employs far more people than the entire mining sector and will be hard hit by climate change. But perhaps the biggest surprise is the royalty payments.

This year, the Queensland Government received around $1.5 billion in royalty payments from the coal industry. In the same breath, $1.3 billion of public money was spent on coal infrastructure – 90% of the total royalty payments. So much for private enterprise. And if you factor in the costs of the negative health and environmental impacts of coal mining the net economic contribution of the industry starts to look even less appealing.

We need to choose whether we want to continue to be a quarry economy, or if we are ready to move into the twenty first century and embrace the renewable energy revolution that is slowly but surely building momentum. At the moment, Rudd and Bligh are still backing the coal industry, with only a token hedge on renewables.

Climate politics in Australia is a struggle over vested interests. For their part, Pacific countries do not have a domestic fossil fuel lobby running full-page ads in national newspapers threatening job losses if we take serious action on climate change. They don’t have a greenhouse mafia whose web of influence entraps politicians at all levels of Government. It means that they can speak the truth about climate change, and call for what is actually required to protect both their future and ours.

In the absence of real honesty or leadership from our own political leaders, the Pacific are our moral conscience on climate change.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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