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National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe, on the agreement between Australia and Tuvalu.

How Australia is taking advantage of one nation’s climate crisis

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As climate change threatens to sink small and vulnerable countries, large and powerful ones are seeing an opportunity.

The climate crisis is giving them the chance to increase their influence, access to valuable resources and military reach.

As Australia enters a new agreement with one of our pacific neighbours facing climate disaster – are we really helping them, or are we just helping ourselves?

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe, on the agreement between Australia and Tuvalu. 

 

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Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe

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[Theme Music Starts]
 
##ANGE:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ange McCormack. This is *7am*.
 
As climate change threatens to sink small and vulnerable countries, large and powerful ones are seeing an opportunity.
 
The climate crisis is giving them the chance to increase their influence, their access to valuable resources and their military’s reach.
 
So, as Australia enters a new agreement with one of our pacific neighbours facing climate disaster. Are we really helping them or are we just helping ourselves?
 
Today, national correspondent for *The Saturday Paper* Mike Seccombe, on the agreement between Australia and Tuvalu. 
 
It’s Friday November 24.
 
[Theme Music Ends]
 
##ANGE:
Mike, earlier this month, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was in the Cook Islands for the Pacific Islands Forum, and he surprised some by announcing this new agreement with a small Pacific Island nation, Tuvalu. Can you tell me about what happened?
 
##MIKE:
Yeah. Well, it was announced at the conclusion of the Pacific Islands Forum where Albanese had a joint press conference alongside the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Prime Minister Natano.
 
##Audio excerpt – Anthony Albanese: 
“Well, thank you so much, Prime Minister Natano, and thank you for your leadership in approaching Australia with this request.”
 
##MIKE:
Wearing matching blue shirts, as they tend to do at these international summits. And they announced a, quote, groundbreaking unquote agreement between the two nations.
 
##Audio excerpt – Anthony Albanese: 
“And the Australia Tuvalu Falepili Union will be regarded as a significant day in which Australia acknowledged that we are part of the Pacific family. And with that comes responsibility…”
 
##MIKE:
And this, I must say, came as a surprise to almost everyone, including a lot of the Tuvaluans. It seems to have been an Australian initiative and was not flagged in advance. And I might say there seems to be a growing amount of criticism within the nation itself about the lack of consultation. But, but anyway, that aside, it's called the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union. That being from the Tuvalu, one word for traditional values of good neighbourliness, care and mutual respect. 
 
##Audio excerpt – Anthony Albanese: 
“The treaty covers three main areas of cooperation: climate change, human mobility, and security…”
 
##MIKE:
What we promised, what Australia promised, was more assistance to cope with climate change. So that involves reclaiming some land on the island. They're planning to increase the land area for the capital by about 6%. It recommitted Australia to providing aid and assistance in response to natural disasters like cyclones, as well as public health emergencies, and an interesting one, military aggression against Tuvalu. 
 
Most notably, though, it also provided for what it called a special human mobility pathway which would allow Tuvaluans access to Australia. So this would allow up to 280. The Prime Minister said to migrate to Australia per year, not only to live or study or work, but it would also give them access to education, health, income and family support on arrival. So it's a pretty generous sort of a deal in that regard. And Albanese called it the most significant agreement between Australia and the Pacific island nation ever. And he's probably right.
 
##ANGE:
And how important is this agreement to Tuvalu? Why did they sign up for it?
 
##MIKE:
Well, you know, we often talk about the existential threat of climate change in the kind of abstract term, but, you know, in this case, Tuvalu is literally experiencing it. Rising sea levels are happening before their eyes. The Foreign Minister of Tuvalu famously recorded a speech to a climate change conference summit in 2021. Standing knee deep in water in Tuvalu.
 
##Audio excerpt – Simon Kofe: 
“We are living the reality of climate change. Sea level rise. As you stand watching me today at Cop26. We cannot wait for speeches when the sea is rising around us all the time.”
 
##MIKE:
To some of these low lying nations like Tuvalu. It's a very, very big threat. I mean, can we shift from a long way from, you know, little tropical Tuvalu to big frigid Greenland to underline this point? Greenland's ice cap is melting at an ever-increasing rate. And there are some scientific estimates that suggest it could melt away entirely if the globe warms by just 1.6 degrees above pre-industrial levels, which isn't much when you consider we're already warmed up by about 1.1 to 1.2 degrees. And if the Greenland ice cap melts, that would raise global sea levels by seven metres. Now at its highest point, Tuvalu is just 4.6m above the current sea level. 
 
So, you know, you can see why the fate of the Greenland ice sheet is of considerable interest to people of, a long way away in Tuvalu. So it could and given the current trajectory of global greenhouse gas emissions, it likely will, I'm afraid to say, vanish beneath the waves within a few generations. 
 
So the country is in the process of essentially replicating itself in the metaverse as a way of safeguarding its culture and its sovereignty in the event of the loss of the land and the displacement of its people.
 
##Audio excerpt – Simon Kofe: 
“As our land disappears, we have no choice but to become the world's first digital nation. Our land, our ocean, our culture are the most precious assets of our people. And to keep them safe from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, will move them to the Cloud.”
 
##MIKE:
They need to figure out where their citizens might go if and when this happens. And signing this agreement with Australia is perhaps one part of the solution. But this wasn't purely a deal about climate change threats and, you know, good neighbourliness in inverted commas and mutual respect. It actually contained quite a bit of detail about security and defence-related matters.
 
##ANGE:
Yeah, right. So there's a bit more to this union than just Australia helping out one of its neighbours. What's Australia getting out of this?
 
##MIKE:
Well, you're right, there's a lot more to it. Interestingly, I think the word sovereignty appeared in the statement a lot, and the agreement committed us to mutual respect and support for each other's sovereignty. And that is at the heart of the Falepili union. But some of the detail in the treaty itself suggests that it would significantly impact on Tuvalu's sovereignty, you know, which typically is defined as a nation's ability to determine its own affairs. 
 
So let me quote some of the wording of the actual agreement: “Tuvalu shall mutually agree with Australia any partnership arrangement or engagement with any other state or entity on security and defence-related matters. Such matters include, but are not limited to defence policing, border protection, cybersecurity, critical infrastructure, including ports, telecommunications and energy infrastructure.” 
 
In other words, Tuvalu would need Australia's agreement before it could deal with other countries in any of these listed areas. Australia has effectively a veto and it's pretty clear that this relates to one nation in particular, that nation being China.
 
##ANGE:
After the break… how Australia is using Tuvalu to its strategic advantage. 
 
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##ANGE:
Mike, This treaty that Australia has agreed to with Tuvalu would give Australia veto power over any deals Tuvalu might consider with China and other countries in the region. What's Australia concerned about exactly?
 
##MIKE:
Well, what we're concerned about is Chinese efforts to grow China's influence in the Pacific, which have been, you know, underway for some years. Most recently, I guess they were heightened last year after the Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China, which underlined a shift in the Solomons foreign policy towards Beijing. And it was the first known bilateral security agreement between China and a country in the Pacific. It was shrouded in some secrecy, but it seemed to involve mostly about China being able to provide police and security support to the nation. 
 
But the bigger concern for Australia was that the deal might allow China to one day build a military base in the Solomon Islands. Tuvalu at the moment is one of the few nations that still officially recognises Taiwan, so they're not yet in Beijing's orbit and Australia doesn't want them to go there. 
 
All the Pacific nations, I guess you would say, have essentially become to a greater and lesser extent pawns in this big geostrategic game being played out between much bigger neighbours, China, the US and Australia. 
 
##ANGE:
So if this from Australia's point of view is about limiting China's influence in the region, is this the start of something bigger potentially? Will Australia approach other Pacific countries in the same way?
 
##MIKE:
Well, Albanese had indicated as much. The government, it seems, would be willing to enter similar agreements on a sort of bespoke case by case basis was the way it was put. 
 
##Audio excerpt – David Speers (ABC): 
“And are you hoping other Pacific nations like Kiribati or Nauru might take up a similar deal with Australia?”
 
##Audio excerpt – Penny Wong: 
“Well, that's a matter for those nations. But I think what this does signal is how we are prepared to approach our membership of the Pacific family.”
 
##Audio excerpt – David Speers (ABC): 
“So the offer is there from Australia.”
 
##Audio excerpt – Penny Wong:  
“I think what it said is we're prepared to be a real partner of choice, an engaged partner.”
 
##MIKE:
And of course this one is relatively small beer, in as much as Tuvalu only has about 11,200 citizens. Other countries are much more populous. But the idea for allowing Tuvaluans to come to Australia as climate refugees has actually been kicking around for some time. 
 
Back in 2019, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered a suggestion that kind of fell somewhere between what you might call latter day imperialism and corporate buyout. And what he proposed was that Australia accept the entire population of Tuvalu and possibly other Pacific countries if and when those countries became uninhabitable in exchange for their and I'm quoting here, their territorial seas, their vast exclusive economic zones, including the preservation of their fisheries reserves. 
 
So in other words, we would get the people and we would also get access to essentially their territorial waters and all that lay beneath. Anyway, that proposal didn't fly. But it does raise a lot of interesting questions about the rights of climate refugees. If a country is submerged, well, does statehood survive? If the former residents move to another country, can they maintain the citizenship rights of their former home that is no longer there, that is no longer habitable? And can they pass those onto their children? What happens to the territorial waters around that sunken nation? 
 
In the case of Tuvalu, would Tuvaluans located somewhere else still control the fishing and other rights? It's all very legally fraught and it's something that experts, you know, in International Refugee Law are looking at very closely.
 
Along the way in doing this story, I spoke to one of the foremost experts actually. I spoke to Professor Jane McAdam, who's the director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales. And she confirmed this Tuvalu deal is the world's first bilateral agreement, specifically on climate mobility. And she suggested more agreements could follow. But she also said that the specific Tuvalu agreement was perhaps not the biggest thing to come out of the Pacific Islands Forum. 
 
Another big development at the forum meeting that was downplayed was the endorsement of something called the Pacific Regional Framework on Climate Mobility. But it addressed something even bigger, I think, than the relocation of Pacific Island people. It addressed the controversial subject of the extent to which the countries that emit large amounts of greenhouse gases should have to compensate those who have suffered loss and damage as a result. 
 
So, you know, as McAdam said in the Pacific, your identity is absolutely bound up with the land and the sea. And so being dislocated from that can have quite traumatic intergenerational consequences. I'll quote her. “We say very clearly that displacement and loss of home is arguably the greatest form of loss and damage, and that's in the Pacific Mobility Framework.” These are big questions for the world at large. To what extent should the countries that have primarily caused climate change have to compensate those who will be most severely impacted? And that's going to be a major agenda item for the next big climate conference in Dubai, which starts at the end of this month.
 
##ANGE:
So, Mike, this union has a lot more to it, I think, than how it was framed, you know, as this friendly agreement between two neighbours. It's been done with security considerations in mind and it also kind of gives the impression that Australia is taking some kind of action on climate change. But is there a more cynical or critical reading of this agreement that's kind of being glossed over here?
 
##MIKE:
I don't think cynical at all. Definitely critical, I would say, because this agreement looks like it's doing something about climate change. I mean, it addresses, I guess you would say, the effects of climate change. What it doesn't do is address the causes Tuvalu and are essentially on a sinking ship and having Australia rescue them isn't stopping climate change. It's just responding to the the harms of our own doing. More effective climate policy would be something that stops climate change in the first place, you know, like reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. 
 
So I spoke with with a noted physicist, Dr. Bill Hare, a veteran of the climate sphere, and he's the chief executive and senior scientist at Climate Analytics. Quoting him, “the political class seems to be doubling down on more gas and to some extent, more coal”. He, like others, see the Tuvalu deal as essentially chequebook diplomacy. You know, he said they've, they've kind of bought off Tuvalu. They're buying support in the Pacific for their geostrategic interests. And while this treaty and possibly others to follow will be a lifeline, every decade we go on with emissions at present levels means another 10 or 15cm of long term sea level rise. And that's the bottom line. 
 
So you know the word Falepili that means good neighbour. You know, it poses the question, would a good neighbour let its actions destroy the land and the homes of others? It's about time we started addressing not just the symptoms, but the cause of this existential threat to our neighbouring countries.
 
##ANGE:
Mike, thanks so much for your time today.
 
##MIKE:
Thanks, Ange. 
 
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##ANGE:
 
Also in the news today…
 
Foreign Minister Penny Wong says that more than 800 Palestinians who have been granted temporary visas to come to Australia, applied through the normal process and were accepted.
 
Wong emphasised on Thursday that some who have been granted visas remain stuck inside Gaza and that even with the temporary ceasefire, movement across borders remains difficult.
 
And
 
Yesterday, Bruce Lehrmann admitted to lying on two separate occasions, during questioning at his defamation trial against Channel 10.
 
Lehrmann admitted to misleading a security guard and later to his then-boss, the chief of staff in Linda Reynolds’ office, about details of the night that Brittany Higgins alleged he raped her.
 
Lehrmann continued to strenuously maintain his innocence during his evidence.
 
*7am* is a daily show from *The Monthly* and *The Saturday Paper*. 
 
It’s produced by Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Zoltan Fecso and Cheyne Anderson. 
 
Our senior producer is Chris Dengate. Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow. 
 
Our editor is Scott Mitchell. Sarah McVeigh is our head of audio.
 
Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. 
 
Mixing by Andy Elston, Travis Evans, and Atticus Bastow.
 
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. 
 
I’m Ange McCormack, this is *7am*. We’ll be back next week. 
 
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Background Reading

news
November 18, 2023
The art of the Tuvalu deal

Australia’s deal with Tuvalu is the first in the world to relocate a population stranded by rising sea levels, and highlights the cynicism of policy that avoids addressing the causes of climate change.