(Image: Private Media/Tom Red)

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made much of announcing an additional $500 million “to support developing countries in our region as they tackle the impacts of climate change”. In particular, this included “an increase for the Pacific from $500 million to at least $700 million”.

While the amount is trivial compared with the $18 billion the government is spending to subsidise coal exports via the inland rail project, and its backing for new coalmines and gas projects, nonetheless the government is proud that its new total of $2 billion “doubles our previous five-year commitment of $1 billion between 2015 and 2020”.

Australia’s climate funding is about adaptation, not mitigation. We’re not interested in actually stopping climate change but we’ll engage in the pretence that we want to help Pacific island communities “adapt” to it, when in cases like Kiribati and Tuvalu, the only long-term adaptation is permanent departure.

A new study by Greenpeace, however, has unmasked just how paltry our commitment even to the self-serving idea of “adaptation” actually is.

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Its author, Dr Alex Edney-Browne, Greenpeace Australia’s investigations officer, has forensically examined the list of aid projects funded by Australia and maintained by the OECD, based on information on all bilateral aid funding provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as well as interviewing regional leaders about their experience with climate aid funding.

About 1% of foreign aid between 2016-18 was spent on climate adaptation projects, and in 2018 the government withdrew from the UN Green Climate Fund, claiming it could deliver more outcomes through direct aid.

But as Edney-Browne found, when you actually examine many of the projects, their connection to climate vanishes. The list for 2019, the most recent year — provided by DFAT to the OECD — includes funding for Australian volunteers to teach in schools and provide healthcare in Africa and South-East Asia, programs aimed at gender-based violence in Afghanistan, reproductive healthcare programs in the Middle East, trade support for APEC countries, human rights programs and business development programs.

All these worthy programs are categorised as having a “significant” climate adaptation component despite the lack of any apparent connection. There are a number of programs listed that could be linked, vaguely or more specifically, to climate adaptation — more resilient infrastructure, water supply, agricultural practices, energy projects — but they form a minority on the list.

The list of Australia-funded programs for which climate adaptation was the “principal” component is blank — DFAT hasn’t provided any detail of any such programs and refused to say why — possibly because there are none. The previous year, 2018, saw just $27 million in programs where adaptation was the “principal” component, and $24 million the previous year. Australia’s 2018 “principal” climate adaptation program list included a $5 million family planning program for the Pacific.

One of the more bizarre inclusions in Australia’s list of “significantly focused” climate adaptation programs are multiple programs in Papua New Guinea collectively called a “governance facility”. DFAT reviewed the program in 2019. There is literally not a single mention of climate in the entire 113-page review — except a reference to the “business climate” in PNG.

Australia also counts an “Australia Pacific training coalition” program as part of its “significantly focused” climate adaptation programs — designed to help workers from existentially threatened island states like Kiribati find jobs in “offshore labour markets” — e.g. fruit-picking for Australia’s rapacious horticulture sector.

On Australia’s recent track record, the extra $500 million offered to developing countries is likely to end up simply replacing existing aid across the length of and breadth of Australia’s aid efforts.

We don’t take the prevention of climate change seriously, but nor do we take the self-serving objective of adaptation seriously either — instead, it’s a shell game using existing aid funding.