Pacific islanders blast Australian minister over rising seas jibe

Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum criticises Peter Dutton for “insensitive” remarks, in week of tension on climate

On average just 2m above sea level, the Marshall Islands are vulnerable to storm surges (Pic: Alson J Kelen)

On average just 2m above sea level, the Marshall Islands are vulnerable to storm surges (Pic: Alson J Kelen)

By Megan Darby

A Pacific island figurehead has let rip at an Australian minister over an “insensitive” joke about the existential threat of sea level rise.

In a jibe caught on camera by ABC News, Australia’s immigration minister Peter Dutton appeared to make fun of vulnerable island nations.

Tony de Brum, Marshall Islands foreign minister, hit back in an exchange that laid bare deep-seated tensions over climate change in the Pacific.

“We thought there was some resistance to the science of climate change amongst our friends to the south, but we didn’t expect there would be that indifference to a matter of life and death for their neighbours,” de Brum told RTCC.

With an average elevation of 2 metres above sea level, his nation of coral atolls is exposed to rising seas and storm surges.

“It is very insensitive to our grandchildren, who must see these waves and these tides and these winds and cry whenever we have a bad storm,” de Brum added.

“Next time there is a king tide and waves are battering my home, I’ll ask Peter Dutton over and we’ll see if he’s still laughing.”

Comment: Why don’t Marshallese people leave their climate-threatened islands?

The remarks that attracted de Brum’s ire were made by Dutton to Australian prime minister Tony Abbott.

Ahead of a meeting about Syrian refugees on Friday, the immigration minister was complaining of the slow start.

Apparently unaware that his words were being picked up by a low-hanging boom mic, Dutton implied indigenous people had lax timekeeping.

“It’s a bit like Cape York time,” he said, referring to a majority Aboriginal community Abbott had recently visited.

Abbott, who had just returned from a Pacific Island Forum meeting that focused on climate change, appeared to agree: “We had a bit of that up in Port Moresby.”

Dutton replied: “Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to… have water lapping at your door.”

Both men laughed, before a third colleague pointed out the overhanging microphone. The gaffe was swiftly dubbed #boomgate on twitter.

Pacific islanders linked to campaigning network are calling for Dutton to resign.

In an open letter to Abbott, they wrote: “For the Pacific, climate change is about survival. We find your Government’s inaction deeply disturbing, and your colleague’s disregard for our people deeply offensive.”

Last week, members of the Pacific Island Development Forum united behind a call for aggressive action to tackle climate change.

They agreed that the international goal to hold temperature rise to 2C was “inadequate” and reiterated demands for a 1.5C limit.

The “Suva declaration” set out a list of asks for the global pact due to be struck in Paris this December. These included a mechanism to help countries deal with loss and damage caused by climate change and 5-yearly reviews of national carbon-cutting plans.

Report: Anger as Australia unveils ‘weak’ climate pledge

Report: New Zealand climate pledge a ‘slap in the face’ to Pacific islands

This week’s Port Moresby meeting, which added Australia and New Zealand to the mix, came out with a weaker statement on climate change.

The two larger countries are less vulnerable to the changing ocean than their neighbours and more concerned about the economic costs of cutting emissions.

Both have faced international criticism for their “weak” contributions to a Paris deal. Analysts at Climate Action Tracker say the plans are inadequate for the 2C goal, let alone 1.5C.

“I was very disappointed of course with the attitude of both our big brothers to the south,” said de Brum.

Analysis: Countries edge towards loss and damage deal at climate talks

While the prospects of holding warming to 1.5C look slim, there are some signs of progress on the contentious loss and damage issue.

At interim talks in Bonn, countries including New Zealand put forward proposals to support those most threatened by climate change impacts.

Developed countries remain averse to the idea of compensation for those who lose homes or livelihoods due to the changing climate. But they have shown willing to consider other options like insurance.

“It is a very sensitive issue with some of our partners – they see the ugly head of liabilities,” said de Brum.

“We must be very careful that we don’t derail the larger agreement… but it must still be addressed in a way that vulnerable countries have the tools to deal with this issue.”

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