Photo shows Funafuti atol on Tuvalu from the air threatened by global warming induced sea level rise.Aerial shot of the Funafuti atoll on Tuvalu showing the impact of rising sea levels. [photo: Ashley Cooper/ Alamy]

As Albanese signs a treaty offering Tuvaluans an escape route, some are asking why he still subsidies the fossil fuel industries that threaten Pacific islands

Climate change is the great existential crisis of our times – and Commonwealth states are disproportionately vulnerable to it. The United Nations recognises 39 territories as small-island developing states, of which 25 are in the Commonwealth. Some states are wealthy, such as Singapore, but most can barely make progress in developing their nations without having to rebuild every time a typhoon or flood sweeps away roads or bridges – one step forward, two steps back.

Even if we somehow stopped producing carbon dioxide, sea levels will still rise inexorably, rainfall will become more intense and heat more extreme. ‘Extreme sea level events that previously occurred once in 100 years could happen every year by the end of this century,’ the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned. The worst-case scenario is a rise of more than 2 metres in a century.

And few places on earth are more vulnerable than Tuvalu, where the average height above sea level is less than 3 metres. The ocean already contaminates fresh groundwater, crops and trees. By 2050, half of the capital, Fogafale, could be flooded. Tuvalu’s prime minister, Kausea Natano, has amended the constitution to assert that the country will exist ‘in perpetuity’ even if its land, precariously stretched out like green ribbons along nine atolls, has disappeared. His government has suggested that a 3D version of Tuvalu could be preserved online.

So it was heartening to see Australia and Tuvalu announce a landmark agreement on the sidelines of the Pacific Islands Forum last week that offers hope to every islander who has worried about how much of their homeland may be left for their children. Under the Falepili Union (a Tuvaluan word for good neighbourliness, care and mutual respect), Anthony Albanese, the Australian prime minister, agreed with Natano to provide a ‘special human mobility pathway’, allowing up to 280 Tuvaluans a year to ‘live, study and work in Australia; access Australian education, health, and key income and family support on arrival’.

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There are also defence clauses in the treaty, under which Australia will provide assistance for military threats or natural disasters. But, more importantly, Tuvalu agreed not to enter into security pacts with ‘any other state’ – meaning China – without Australia’s agreement. This is aimed at blocking the strategic expansion of Beijing’s influence among Commonwealth states in the Pacific, which has already encompassed the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Albanese said Australia would try to help Tuvaluans remain on their island homes, so there would be funding for Tuvalu’s Coastal Adaptation Project, which reclaims land from the sea to protect the main island of Funafuti and creates raised areas less prone to flooding. Although Dr Anna Powles, at New Zealand’s Massey University, said the deal went ‘against Pacific agency’ and self-determination, Kausea dismissed criticism, saying: ‘I’m pretty sure I’m representing all of Tuvalu’s appreciation of Australia’s response to our request for support.’

In New Zealand, home to nearly 400,000 ‘Pasifika’ peoples – 8% of the population – there were calls for a similar immigration policy embracing climate justice. A report by Dr Olivia Yates on Tuvaluan and Kiribati communities in Auckland recommended climate-mobility visas, helping migrants ‘regrow roots’, and a communications strategy to prepare New Zealanders for climate refugees’ arrival.

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As Tuvalu’s ‘very existence is threatened’, Albanese said, ‘developed nations have a responsibility to provide assistance.’ However, many at the Pacific Islands Forum criticised his Labor government for continuing to hand out tax breaks to carbon-intensive industries, such as coalmines, while Australia’s small-island neighbours were slowly drowning. Campaigners for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty put the figure for last year’s subsidies at A$11bn ($7bn), or ‘seven times the amount of money it would take to fund a renewable energy transition for eight Pacific countries’.

While welcoming the treaty, the Australian Greens leader, Adam Bandt, pointed out that Pacific nations feared for the very existence of their homelands because the global north produced so much carbon: ‘It would be even better if Labor didn’t cause the damage in the first place and stopped approving new coal and gas mines.’

That tension between the need to plan for the forced migration of Pacific islanders and the urge to avert that cataclysmic future was summed up by the UN’s climate mobility envoy, Carlos Alvarado Quesada. While praising the pact for ‘recognising [Tuvalu’s] current situation and the need to have options for people’, he added: ‘The first right to protect is the right to stay.’

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.