It would have been an uncomfortable spot. Yesterday Australian officials sat quietly in their chairs as Pacific leader after Pacific leader delivered stern warnings about the lethal threat that climate change poses to their nations.
UN Secretary General meets Pacific leaders to discuss ‘global catastrophe’ of climate change
Regional heavyweights had gathered at an historic climate change summit convened with the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Mr Guterres is intent on building global momentum for sharper cuts to emissions, arguing that drastic action is necessary to stave off ecological disaster.
The Pacific is on the “front line of climate change”, Mr Guterres told the meeting.
The Carteret Islands were the first place in the world to require population relocations due to climate change, with predictions they would be submerged by 2015.
“It has a unique moral authority to speak out. It’s time for the world to listen.”
Senior Australian officials at the meeting could do little else; sent in the place of Prime Minister Scott Morrison only days before the Federal election, they were bound to observer status by the caretaker conventions.
As a result, Australia did not sign up to the final statement by Pacific leaders, which declared climate change a “global catastrophe” and called for “transformative action” to stop it.
But who was to blame for this “global catastrophe”?
Both Antonio Guterres and Pacific leaders were careful not to point fingers — delicately saying that “large countries”, “developed countries” and the “whole global community” had a responsibility to act.
But the reality is of all the countries ringed around Mr Guterres at the Fiji meeting, only two — Australia and New Zealand — make a meaningful contribution to climate change.
And while Pacific leaders have praised New Zealand’s announcement that it wants to go carbon neutral by 2050, many are frustrated that Australia has failed to curb its emissions.
One Pacific official told the ABC the meeting’s call for radical action on climate change “really was aimed at the whole globe” but “for those in the room (it) was a message for one country”.
“Of course no-one said Australia. No-one needed to say Australia,” the official said. “What other country in the room could we be referring to?”
The outspoken Prime Minister of Samoa, Tuilaepa Sailele, went much further, wading straight into Australia’s election campaign during the post-summit press conference.
Antonio Guterres had already firmly batted away a question about Australia’s debate on climate change, wryly observing that foreigners should never meddle in domestic election debates.
‘The question will be answered by Australian voters’
It looked like the event would wrap up without controversy. But Mr Sailele reached unbidden for the microphone to volunteer his own answer.
“I think we should not worry too much about it,” he declared.
“The question will be answered by the (Australian) voters. Let us keep our fingers crossed!”
The message was unmistakable. Uneasy laughter rippled through the room. At least one Australian official was deeply unimpressed.
Some Australian politicians are also irritated by the rhetoric from other Pacific leaders on climate change.
They point out that it’s easy to demand a zero carbon future when you emit nothing, and say the Pacific doesn’t understand how “ruinous” it would be for Australia to rapidly cut emissions.
“They just say the words, we bear the burden,” was how one Coalition frontbencher described it.
They predict that there will long be a gap between what the Pacific would like Australia to do on climate policy, and what Australian Governments — Labor or Coalition — will actually contemplate.
But decision makers in Canberra also know that the Pacific is increasingly impatient about Australia’s long and painful debate on climate policy.
The argument will flare up again in only months when regional leaders gather for the Pacific Islands Forum on tiny Tuvalu, which has long been a vocal champion for drastic climate action.
And this time, Australia will not be sitting on the sidelines.