Small Island States shouldn’t be forced to pay the price for Australia’s high carbon “lifestyle choice”

Vanuatu Cyclone Pam

Australia is one of the world’s top carbon emitters and its Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is increasingly isolated globally in his staunch defense of the status quo. Highlighting his hypocrisy, the Vanuatu disaster is a prime example of what’s at stake if he refuses to budge.

.Digital.Disclosure./ ALISON LOWE

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — As Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott surveys the wreckage of Vanuatu in the wake of Cyclone Pam, he would do well to think hard about how his high carbon “lifestyle choice” for Australia contributes to the tragedy – a situation in which most of the island nation’s population have been left homeless.

Having stoked outrage last week when he suggested the Australian government should not “endlessly subsidise the lifestyle choices” of Aboriginal people, Vanuatu now demonstrates why Abbott would have done us all a favour by instead applying this misplaced logic to his dangerous stance on climate change.

For in his conclusion about paying your way for costly “preferences”, he could just as easily be driving home the case for why neither Australians nor vulnerable small island nations like Vanuatu and The Bahamas, my country of birth, should be put on the hook financially for the policy decisions of the Abbott government.

Taxpayers in developing countries like mine, already facing a myriad of complex challenges, cannot easily afford to respond to the disastrous and well-documented externalities of the type of high carbon growth strategy that Abbott irrationally clings to.

By blindly expecting our small island states to pick up the ongoing recovery and re-development tabs that will result from more frequent and intense cyclones and sea level rise that go hand in hand with his policy choices, it is the Prime Minister who is demanding an unreasonable subsidy for his unfair lifestyle choice.

As a gesture that apparently recognises the moral duty of a wealthier, developed country towards a poorer and more vulnerable neighbour, Australia’s offer of $5 million in aid and disaster relief is better than nothing.

But by tipping a hat towards this principle, it primarily serves to highlight the gaping divide between what is, and what should be, as far as Abbott’s commitment to grappling with Australia’s disproportionate contribution to the root of the problem.

To many who feel the brunt of Abbott’s approach, it is likely to appear akin to offering someone a headache pill as you defend poisoning their water well.

U.N. chief Ban Ki Moon recently described climate change as, “intensifying the risks for hundreds of millions of people, particularly in small island developing states and coastal areas” – risks such as those now illustrated with horrifying magnitude in Vanuatu.

And as former New Zealand Prime Minister and U.N. development bank chief, Helen Clark, put it at the UN’s world conference on disaster risk reduction, underway in Japanwhen the cyclone struck: “Unless we tackle climate change on the global level we are making the task of building resilience to disasters almost impossible.” So much for $5 million.

There is a strong argument for maintaining remote Aboriginal communities – which, much more than simply a “lifestyle choice” like whether to join the gym, reflect a traditional way of life and an ancient connection to the land.

It is a similar sort of arguments as to why islanders of countries like Vanuatu and The Bahamas would like to remain there, rather than becoming climate refugees (as some already have), likely looking to countries like Australia for refuge when they are forced to leave their homes.

But the Abbott government’s polluting approach to economic growth is indefensible on any level. It is also one that threatens to export Australia’s problems all over the world.

Abbott is increasingly isolated in his stance. He has a duty to change course.

Aboriginal communities may be remote, but it is Abbott’s chosen approach to climate change that is truly “out there,” and set to cost us all dearly.

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