Amina discusses whether the former Australian minister’s proposal to take responsibility for relocating Pacific islanders in exchange for their rich fisheries is a solution to the inescapable effects of climate change or in fact just neo-colonialism.
Today, climate change presents major environmental threats to the world. It does not merely generate a fast-paced deterioration of the environment that surrounds the human societies but also agitates the socio-economic and political arenas around the world. This agitation may result in a political tension or even heated conflicts over resources or strategic zones. These notions may seem far-fetched, futuristic and apocalyptic, yet a recent essay published by the former Australian minister Kevin Rudd epitomises the looming detrimental effects of climate change on the world’s politics and economy. The moot essay published on Rudd’s website entitled “The Complacent Country”, proposed that Australia would be made responsible for relocating the Pacific islanders from Tuvalu, Nauru and Kiribati that are threatened by climate change and granting them Australian citizenship. In exchange, Australia will be made responsible for their rich fisheries, maritime zones and EEZs (Economic Exclusive Zones). This proposal has apparently sparked tension between Australia and these island nations. The proposal has been described as “imperial thinking” by the Tuvaluan prime minister Enele Sopoaga, and accused Rudd of propagating a neo-colonial and a hegemonic agenda.
Rudd, in The Complacent Country, attempted to offer a fair imagination and future aspirations to build a big Australia, a fair Australia and a sustainable Australia. The essay addressed the various socio-economic, political and environmental challenges and debates such as education, the economy, and the ideological conflicts between the conservatives, neo-liberals, and socialists to name a few. The catchy facade of the essay results not from Rudd’s debating the ideal Australia, or a social democratic Australia, but rather from the tiny bit in the essay which addresses the future continuity of the island nations in the face of climate change. Rudd’s proposal pushes us to think beyond its contextual purpose and inquire whether it is a new way to ingrain hegemonic policies and economic expansion through climate change? Or, is Rudd’s proposal the optimal solution offered to Pacific micro states as an adaptation strategy to the mounting effects of climate change?
Before reflecting further on Rudd’s essay, it is important to shed light on the Pacific Island states mentioned in The Complacent Country. Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru are three neighbouring small Pacific island states in Oceania. The three islands have a low-elevation to sea level which puts them in a direct risk of inundation and submergence by climate change-induced sea level rise in the future. Not forgetting high magnitude environmental surges such as cyclones and high tides, the three island nations suffer from other effects of climate change such as high salinity in arable lands and coral bleaching which endangers their fisheries. Migration is often seen as a significant adaptation strategy in which the islanders migrate to live and work in neighbouring states such as New Zealand and Australia.
Rudd bluntly suggests that Australia, Tuvalu, Nauru and Kiribati formulate a constitutional condominium that is similar to the arrangement between Australia and Norfolk Island. Rudd argues that climate change is shrinking the landmass of these island states and in the near future, their population will be dispersed as environmental refugees and thus the world will look at Australia for leadership. These ex-ante predictions seem to offer a grim, narrow and imperialistic proposition as interpreted by the leader of Tuvalu, who called instead for urgent action on climate change; as this is a world issue that is not a particular phenomenon in the Pacific Island states. Sopoaga proposed the formation of a Pacific regional integration scheme, a Pacific supra-nation following the example of the EU for cooperation, collaboration and integration among the Pacific small island states.
I would argue that The Complacent Country reflects how the Pacific states are generally perceived by the media and politicians, either explicitly or implicitly, as inconsequential and fragile “quasi”-nation states, whose continuity is wavering because of climate change. It is undeniable that the Pacific states, primarily the ones mentioned in Rudd’s essay, are threatened by the mounting effects of climate change, and experience severe environmental and economic hardships. However, the proposition of a constitutional condominium, “the swap of precious fisheries with the Australian citizenship”, is in fact, offering a trade-off that decreases hope for a safer and sustainable future and increases uncertainties, fears and even regional and political tension. In this regard, it becomes difficult to predict the true effects of climate change on the socio-economic and political levels. Why has Rudd rushed to this proposal instead of proposing regional cooperation as a reaction to climate change such as adaptation and mitigation plans in the Pacific island states? The future will clarify the role of climate change in the political and international arena as a key influencing variable.
About the author: Amina Ghezal is a Postgraduate Student (PhD) at the College of Social Sciences & International Studies, University of Exeter.