The president of Kiribati has criticised Australia’s commitment to new coalmines on economic grounds as a “very selfish perspective” that illustrates the “fundamentally unjust” dynamics of climate change.
Anote Tong, whose small Pacific island nation is threatened by rising sea levels, has written to other national leaders calling for a worldwide moratorium on new mines ahead of UN climate talks in Paris in December.
Tong, who called for a pact to end new coal projects “simply to find some very concrete action on climate change”, told Guardian Australia he knew it would “touch on sensitivities”.
“I know the closure of coal-fired power plants will not happen,” he said.
“But at least the moratorium on coalmines, it gives people that sense that something can be done … and it allows those involved in the industry time to adapt. I thought it would be more achievable.
“In climate negotiations to date we keep talking around the numbers, two degrees or more than two degrees celsius. [But] it’s about what we do. And coal is certainly something very concrete, very significant in terms of what it does.”
In recent weeks the Australian government and the mining lobby have portrayed environmental groups as saboteurs of valuable coal projects, using legal challenges to put jobs and economic growth at risk.
Tong, who said he was yet to receive a reply from the Australian government, wrote in his letter that “science, as confirmed by the [intergovernmental panel on climate change], dictates that for the world to avoid catastrophic climate change, we must leave the vast bulk of carbon reserves in the ground”.
Asked about the economic arguments raised in defence of the continued advance of Australia’s coal industry – including its self-proclaimed role in helping alleviate world poverty– Tong said: “My response is very simple: it’s a very selfish perspective.
“I understand and I’ve always said that for Australia, climate change is not the top of the agenda because they’ve got high ground,” he said. “We don’t.”
Other countries had refused to acknowledge the “fundamentally unjust” situation that climate change is “not contained within the countries that create it”.
“The question is: do we have the moral obligation to worry and care about those for whom this is a serious issue?” Tong said.
“My answer is yes. You have every responsibility and obligation to do something about it. If it was happening inside Australia, there is no doubt at all in my mind that it would be on top of what everyone was doing.”
Amid fears about Kiribati’s survival, the government has been forced to consider radical engineering schemes to mitigate a shrinking land mass, while buying farmland in Fiji as a “food security” measure.
Climate change had dominated his 12-year term as president (which will end next year), but recent unprecedented tidal flooding and cyclones represented a “new and frightening” development.
“It puts some panic in people,” Tong said. “It’s not something we’re talking about happening into the future – we can see the problem. What do we do when the next tide comes? And we have a spring tide coming at the end of this month.
“There are really no sceptics [in Kiribati] at the present moment in time.
“I must be honest to say that I’ve never really gone out of my way to publicise to our own people what is happening because I didn’t see the sense in making them fear what they really cannot do anything about.
“So my focus has been trying as much as possible to alert the international community to the fact planet Earth has a problem, and so do we.”
Tong said the ideal outcome of Paris would include “realistic solutions” to the impacts that Kiribati and others face. He is among those lobbying for an international aid package for Kiribati and other vulnerable nations to meet the costs of climate change.
“For us, zero emissions is not even good enough. The reality is what’s already in the atmosphere will … continue to raise the sea to levels that would ensure that we go down,” he said.
“The future is guaranteed to be very terrible in a very short space of time. We need a package.”
Suggestions that vulnerable countries be given loans instead of grants were not politically acceptable.
“People will not go for it. It is the responsibility of the international community to come up with a package,” he said.
He hoped that “what happens in terms of delivery, what happens in terms of the targets, will happen very soon – sooner rather than later”.
“It is a moral issue and it’s absolutely unjust for those to go ahead and do what they’re doing without regard for those whose survival will be in question,” he said. More