As Pacific Islands plea for climate action, Australia's prime minister and deputy prime minister refuse to curtail coal useAustralia's Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, left, along with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, center, have steadfastly backed their country's use of coal amid pleas from the Pacific Islands to combat climate change. Photo credit: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

As a tense meeting of countries in the Pacific region concluded last week with Australia forcing a watered-down statement climate change, Australia’s deputy prime minister further demonstrated the government’s disregard for Pacific islands’ pleas for urgent climate action to ensure their survival. 

Michael McCormack, who was Australia’s acting prime minister while Scott Morrison attended the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, said that people from low-lying islands in the region will continue to survive in part because of the labor value they bring to Australia. 

“They’ll continue to survive because many of their workers come here to pick our fruit,” McCormack said Friday, as recorded and reported by The Guardian. He also said he gets “a little bit annoyed” at people from these islands calling for Australia to curtail its  coal production so that “they will continue to survive.” 

“We’re not going to be hijacked into doing something that’s going to shut down the industry that provides tens of thousands of workers’ jobs, that provides two-thirds of our energy needs,” McCormack said. 

Ahead of the forum in Tuvalu, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama urged Australia to commit to a rapid transition away from coal to carbon-free energy, and to acknowledge the existential threat that climate change poses to low-lying islands. In response to McCormack’s comments, Bainimarama posted on Twitter, “If this is the Australian Government’s idea of a ‘step up’ in its relations with the Pacific, it’s certainly not a step forward. It’s a big step backwards.” 

Solomon Yeo, a University of South Pacific law student and president of the Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change, said that the student organization is very disappointed in the statements of Australia’s deputy prime minister. 

“Pacific islanders don’t and won’t exist by picking Australian fruit, and any Australian who thinks that has a neocolonial attitude borne of ignorance and racism,” Yeo said. “We know those people exist but it is shocking to learn that they hold important positions in the Australian government.

“We stand alongside the kids of Australia who believe that Scott Morison does not speak for them and are urging Australia to move beyond coal.” 

The group of students is campaigning to begin the process of seeking an advisory opinion on climate change and human rights from the International Court of Justice. While the Pacific Islands Forum did not formally commit to seeking an advisory opinion, the leaders recognized the students’ request in their final statement. 

“In recognising the need to formally secure the future of our people in the face of climate change and its impacts, Leaders noted the proposal for a United Nations General Assembly Resolution seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change,” the document states. 

Yeo said the students “would have preferred that this statement had been endorsed rather than noted,” but called it “a great outcome.” 

Yeo added that while he doesn’t think McCormack’s inflammatory comments on Pacific islanders’ survival would lead to lawsuits, Australia and other countries’ continued defense of coal could be a potential liability. 

“Australia and the whole world is now on notice—burning coal is warming the planet to everyone’s detriment,” he said. “Those who know this and continue to profit from it should fear justice.” 

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