With the elephant of climate change well and truly in the room and on fire in Australia, the Morrison Government is still shy to use the “C” word in its rhetoric, but there still may be a way our Pacific neighbours can get their ear.

Pacific island nations were gutted by their belligerent big Australian brother’s lack of commitment to reducing CO2 emissions at the Pacific Islands Forum in August 2019.

Prime Minister Morrison’s creative accounting was a three-cup shuffle that redirected $500m in existing aid into renewable energy development, for ‘climate and disaster resilience’.

However, in its own backyard, Australia’s Islander people in the Torres Strait have been dealing with their government’s reluctance to use the ‘C’ word with its own three cup trick.

Like many Pacific Island nations, the Torres Strait’s risk from climate-change-induced sea level rise was identified by the UN and the Australian Government’s own, but now defunct, Department of Climate Change back in 2009.

It was about this time the Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC) started lobbying for seawalls

TSIRC Mayor Fred Gela said that after years of trying, the money only came after they stopped mentioning the ‘C’ word of climate change.

“We started calling it the restoration of failing infrastructure,” Gela said.

It was this change of rhetoric, Gela said, that meant the money finally started rolling in, some $26M in joint Commonwealth and Queensland Government funding in 2014.

However, that money dried up in 2017, and only created one seawall for the island community of Saibai. There are still five more communities in immediate need of infrastructure works and it has been slow progress to negotiate for more money.

Gela said: “Even though today’s government has sceptics or non-believers of climate change, we on the forefront, we experience it and live it and have seen it over a number of generations.

“It’s coming at a more alarming rate now, so it’s easier for our people to recognise the many changes that’s occurring, because we keep constant watch and have a knowledge base that has been passed down for generations.”

Just days before the May 2019 election eight Torres Strait Islanders with help of Client Earth, a London-based environmental advocacy group, took a complaint to the UN, that the Australian Government was not doing enough to protect Torres Strait Islanders against the impacts of climate change.

Then in September 2019, at the start of Australia’s worst-ever bushfire season on the back of the worst drought recorded, Prime Minister Morrison and Minister for Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, both declined an offer to visit the Torres Strait communities to see the impacts of climate change first-hand.

Napau Pedro Stephen AM, Chair of the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA), the federal statutory agency that represents the region expressed his concern in December about the lack of government commitment around mitigating climate change, echoing a sentiment that could have come from Kiribati or the Marshall Islands.

“As custodians of our island nation we have witnessed first-hand the impacts of climate change and its direct and indirect impacts to our people, culture and communities,” Stephen said. 

“Climate change is a very real issue for Torres Strait Islanders and it’s happening right here, right now, and unfortunately, the Commonwealth’s funding commitments have fallen short…”

Then, just before Christmas, as the bushfires worsened in what was described as a ‘living hell’ by survivors, the first Indigenous MP to hold the portfolio representing First Nation Australians, Ken Wyatt AM, quietly announced, with next to no media attention, $25m funding for an ‘infrastructure package,’ in the region – the lion’s share to be used to construct seawalls.

Wyatt said the funding was needed to “…stabilise the coast and protect the islands from sea flooding…” but again there was no mention of the ‘C’ word.

Queensland Government Ministerial Champion for the Torres Strait Shannon Fentiman commented at the time: “We need a federal government that isn’t scared to use the term climate change and be willing to tackle the issue head on.”

Noble words from a state government who has signed off on the Adani coal mine, a goliath of a project that will create massive CO2 emissions for years to come.

One of the Torres Strait Islander complainants who took their case against the Australian Government to the UN, Kabay Tamu, a Traditional Owner for the low-lying sandy cay island of Warraber welcomed Wyatt’s funding announcement.

“But there is so much more to be done in terms of the reality of climate change and the root causes the Australian Government still needs to address,” Tamu said.

“To hear they are just calling it infrastructure just goes to show that they are covering up and not addressing climate change.

“We need to address the bigger issue, which is the emission targets that we need to reach and that the Australian Government needs to reach, because while the seawalls will slow down the effects of the coastal erosion that comes with rising sea levels – there are also the impacts on our marine environment, especially our reefs.”

Tamu’s words seem prophetic as the entire Great Barrier Reef endures its third major bleaching episode in five years and where research now suggests all the world’s reefs are on a climate change death row.

Climate change affects island people of the Pacific and beyond, and not just through rising sea-levels, dying reefs and acidification of oceans. It also brings loss of economic opportunity and health impacts from heat stress, increases of vector-borne disease and other physical and mental strains.

It results in loss of place, culture and identity for island people.

Morrison’s newly promised “technology over taxation” approach to climate change, is the latest dodge and weave from that burning elephant in the room, and to avoid signing up to a commitment of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The lesson here for our Pacific island nation neighbours, who are on the low ground when it comes to sea level rise, is that they can still take the moral high ground in regard to the aspirations of humanity.

As Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said at PIF in August: “No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse to not to do the right thing.”

However, maybe our Island brothers and sisters of the Pacific can get the help they need by not mentioning the ‘C’ word of ‘climate change’, but instead pitching it as ‘technological advances in building climate and disaster resilience.’


Aaron Smith is an award-winning multi-platform freelance journalist with a focus on environmental and Indigenous issues and social justice. His stories appear in the Guardian, SBS, CNN, Australian Geographic and various newspapers.