NEWCASTLE, Australia — Thirty community leaders from 12 Pacific Island nations set down their handmade, traditional canoes in Australian waters on Friday and paddled out to the mouth of the world’s largest coal port to stop coal exports for one day.
As one protester’s sign put it: “Coal is not good for humanity.”
The Pacific Climate Warriors joined an annual flotilla of hundreds of kayaks and surfboards in protesting climate change and raising awareness about the dangers of coal. They succeeded in blocking eight of 12 ships scheduled to pass through the Newcastle Coal Port, despite police intervention.
“This tour, and in particular the flotilla at the Newcastle coal port, is a way for the Warriors to stand up and say they are not drowning, they are fighting,” Koreti Tiumalu said in emails to MintPress. “The Warriors hope to mobilize thousands of Australians to stand up and take action against our destructive fossil fuel industry and join the call to protect the Pacific islands and their people.”
Tiumalu is the Pacific Outreach Coordinator for 350, a U.S.-based nonprofit dedicated to building a global climate movement.
“For over 20 years now Pacific Islanders have been negotiating with little effect for countries like Australia to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, and to stop coal, oil and gas exports,” Tiumalu continued. “Despite the dire implications for its neighbors, Australia has plans to triple its coal exports and become the world’s largest gas exporter.”
Five years ago, young islanders from 15 Pacific Island nations began to organize under the name of 350 Pacific, joining 350 through the online campaigns, grassroots organizing and mass public actions coordinated by the organization’s active network spanning more than 188 countries.
The Climate Warriors have spent the past year with elders, hand-crafting five traditional canoes decorated with symbols of support and prayer from their homelands. By participating in Friday’s blockade, the group was sending a message to the fossil fuel industry, the public and the government: The impacts of emissions from fossil fuels are already being seen on their homelands due to their low elevation, small size and remote locations.
Pacific Island nations are considered among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. According to the Climate Change Performance Index compiled by Germanwatch, a North-South equity advocacy group, Pacific Island nations are among the 10 most at risk for impacts from climate change. They’re already seeing rising sea levels, more and more severe storm activity, as well as drier climate conditions that reduce the islands’ already limited water resources. Additionally, rising saltwater tables are affecting deep-rooted food crops, like coconut, pulaka and taro, and infiltrating fresh water supplies.
“Yet these countries are amongst the least able to adapt and to respond; and the consequences they face, and already now bear, are significantly disproportionate to their collective miniscule contributions to global emissions,” the Pacific Islands Forum asserts, noting that climate change is “an immediate and serious threat” to promoting sustainable development and eradicating poverty among Pacific Island nations.
An estimated temperature rise of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius could result in up to $1 billion of damages to water resources in Papua New Guinea alone, and it could cost the Pacific region an estimated $447 million every year until 2050 to respond to losses to the gross domestic product.
Yet 350 reports that these estimates do not factor in the hundreds of thousands of people who could be displaced by rising sea levels or the loss of crops and reduced water supplies which would force them from their homes and their cultural heritage.
Earlier this year the Fijian government identified 676 villages already threatened by the effects of climate change. Of these, 42 may potentially be relocated in the next five to 10
years. The people of the nine villages of Vunidogoloa, Fiji’s second largest island, have already had to pack up their lives and move to higher ground because of devastating rises in sea levels and flooding.
The Newcastle Coal Port
Australia is currently the world’s second largest coal exporter, with coal accounting for almost 13 percent of the country’s total exports of goods and services in 2012-13, down from 15 percent in 2011-12.
The Pacific Climate Warriors spent two weeks in Australia and even toured the Port of Newcastle, the world’s largest coal port, ahead of the blockade. The port has capacity to ship 232 million tons of coal exports per year. It reportedly exported a record 165.6 million tons in 2013, a 12.5 percent increase from the previous year.
“It’s important for us, as people from the Marshall Islands, to take action because our islands mean everything to us,” Milañ Loeak, a 26-year-old Climate Warrior, who traveled to Australia for the event, told MintPress via email. “Who else will stand up and fight for our people and our islands and culture? When will we be assured that we can continue to live without continuously fearing for the future and that of our children, grandchildren and our islands?”
A state of emergency was declared for the Marshall Islands in March after severe floods and king tides swept over the low-lying atolls. More than 1,000 people were forced to evacuate.
Loeak said king tides are becoming more frequent on the Marshall Islands, which is comprised of 29 atolls that lie an average of only 2 meters above sea level. The flooding has caused massive damage to communities, which feeds an ongoing debate about the potential need for islanders to migrate.
“Climate change is not an issue that the Marshall Islands or Tokelau or any other island in the Pacific should be doing alone because this is a global problem,” Loeak said. ”None of us who have felt the impacts of climate change should continue to suffer through them just to fulfill others’ interests. It’s wrong and it simply doesn’t work that way.”
The Australian government, under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, has approved a number of new coal projects, including the Carmichael Coal Mine in Central Queensland with associated dredging to be dumped offshore at Abbot Point, about 15 miles from the Great Barrier Marine Park. The proposed thermal coal mine would produce over 66 million tons of coal per year, thus making it the country’s largest coal mine.
“We just want to share our stories and make sure that people are aware that the decisions that are being made over here are directly affecting our islands back home,” Loeak said.
Erwin Jackson, deputy CEO of The Climate Institute, says the carbon pollution resulting from Australian energy imposes the largest subsidy in the energy sector, with a public cost of “many billions of dollars” every year.
An analysis by The Climate Institute revealed an annual carbon subsidy of approximately $14 billion to $39 billion, provided across electricity, transport, direct combustion and fugitive emissions, based on U.S. calculations of the social costs of carbon pollution.
“Without the Renewable Energy Target, a policy to close ageing, high-polluting coal plants and/or an explicit price on carbon, this carbon subsidy will continue to grow,” Jackson said.
“Our islands will lose everything”
“If nothing is done to transition away from the fossil fuel industry, many of our Islands will lose everything,” Simon Copland, the communications coordinator for 350 Australia, told MintPress via email.
Prior to the blockade at Newcastle, the Climate Warriors has also visited the site of the Maules Creek Coal Mine. They were given a tour of the site where the Leard State Forest was being cleared to dig for the source of fuel.
The Leard State Forest is the largest remaining tract of critically endangered Box Gum forest in Australia. Home to more than 390 species, half the forest will be directly destroyed by the mine digging up 14.3 million tons of coal that would disperse coal dust.
The coal will be transported to Newcastle for export and release 33 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions for 30 years.
According to Peter Christoff, associate professor of climate politics and policy at University of Melbourne, “Australia’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions means it ranks 12th among the planet’s 195-plus nations. We are 16th in the world for domestic CO2 emissions alone. And our per capita emissions are among the highest in the world. So our contribution to global warming is much greater than we often recognize.”
Adding emissions from coal exports to domestic emissions, Australia’s carbon footprint triples, Christoff wrote in 2012.
“Its coal exports alone currently contribute at least another 3.3 percent of global emissions,” he continued. “Therefore, Australia is at present the source of at least 4.8 percent of total global emissions. That’s without considering natural gas exports.”
The nine new proposed “mega coal mines” in Queensland’s Galilee Basin would be responsible for emitting 775.5 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. That would turn the region into the world’s seventh largest contributor of global emissions.
The 2012 Greenpeace Australia report warned that the growth in coal-fired emissions represented by the nine Queensland mines would result in the International Energy Agency’s model of a catastrophic 6 degrees Celsius rise in temperature. Sea levels would rise, causing mass migration. Entire agricultural areas would be wiped out, resulting in food shortages, and areas of the globe would be uninhabitable.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt said in July that his approval of Australia’s largest coal mine will not have any significant impact on the Great Barrier Reef.
Hunt approved the $165 billion Carmichael Coal and Rail Project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, with strict conditions on groundwater conservation. Fifty million tons of sea bed will be dug up and dumped within the Marine Park in order to expand.
The U.N. 2014 Climate Summit saw an unprecedented number of world leaders gather together in September, including 100 heads of state and government and more than 800 leaders from business, finance and civil society — the majority of whom agreed that climate change is a defining issue of our time.
Ambassador Odo Tevi, the Vanuatu Permanent Representative to the U.N., told the Summit that climate change is worsening the lives of Pacific Islanders.
“For the low-lying atolls, it’s a big challenge,” he said. “It’s really an existential threat for them.”