Paul O’Callaghan, CEO of Caritas Australia. Nongovernmental organizations are calling on Australia to do more for its neighboring countries in the fight against climate change. Photo by: Caritas Australia

When Australia announced the target it would be taking to December’s U.N. climate conference in Paris, France — it will present a carbon emissions target of 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 — the overwhelming response was that it wasn’t enough.

“The target is embarrassing because it puts us at the bottom of the pack of all the major developed economies,” Marc Purcell, executive director of the Australian Council for International Development, said. “It says we don’t care enough about the damaging storms, king tides and inundation that climate change is bringing across Southeast Asia.”

On Monday, Caritas Australia, Catholic Earthcare and the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council took their message directly to Parliament House in Canberra. The special event, with a panel representing developing communities, government, nongovernmental organizations and the Roman Catholic Church, urged Australia to do more for neighboring countries fighting against climate change on a daily basis.

“I had the unusual experience last year in traveling to a number of countries where Caritas Australia operates, including Sri Lanka, [Myanmar], the Philippines and in Tonga,” Paul O’Callaghan, CEO of Caritas Australia, said. “It was quite a surprise to me that in the lengthy discussions with cardinals in each of those countries the main issue that they wanted to talk to me about, coming from Australia, was ‘What can you do, Paul, to help your government understand that this is not an abstract issue?’”

‘Urgent’ need to boost contributions to climate action

Jacqui Rémond, director of Catholic Earthcare, said Australia urgently needs to regain its regional influence and become a world leader in addressing climate change.

“We call on the Australian government to urgently increase our contribution to international and national climate action,” she said. “Australia must contribute our responsible share toward global climate financing for climate change adaptation and low carbon development in poorer countries. These funds should be additional to, not replacing, current overseas aid budget.”

She also urged the Australian government to play a greater role in climate change negotiations in Paris and beyond.

“Although this may seem obvious, it is not something we have been witnessing to date,” Rémond said.

Meg McDonald, chief operating officer of the Clean Energy Finance Corp., was hopeful that agreements for emissions targets will progress well in December.

“Governments have been slow to act, but it is not easy to get so many countries all aligned, all working toward a single end,” she said. “Progressively we are moving toward more global action and it’s my observation that we are closer to that now than we have ever been before because we have more alignment from the major players and more recognition of the urgency.”

Despite a strong turnout and an audience strongly in favor of seeing more action from Australia to support developing nations in the fight against climate change, invited representatives of Tony Abbott’s government were noticeably absent at the event.

Maria Tiimon, Jacqui Rémond and Meg McDonald gathered at Parliament House in Canberra to discuss their concerns with Australia’s climate change policies. Photo by: Lisa Cornish

Paris, a last-ditch effort for many nations

Maria Tiimon, an I-Kiribati who is currently serving as a Pacific outreach officer at the Pacific Calling Partnership, expressed her disappointment at the Australian government for distancing itself from action on climate change.

“I strongly feel very frustrated and disappointed,” she told Devex. “We always look at Australia as our big brother to help us. We are just next door — neighbors with Australia. It’s so very sad to see that this current government is almost doing nothing. Honestly we are very grateful to the funding they provide already for foreign aid, but they can do more for climate change. Australia should take a lead because they are important to the Pacific.”

The nation of Kiribati is just one of the many in the Pacific that understand the realities of climate change — it threatens their lives and livelihoods on a daily basis. Regardless of her frustrations with Australia, Tiimon still has a positive outlook for Paris in December.

“We’ve got to look at the positive signs,” she said. “Looking at the United States and countries in Europe who are doing a lot on climate change gives hope.”

But there is still concern that any outcome will not be enough for Kiribati.

“Climate change is very real in Kiribati,” Tiimon said. “For many countries, climate change is about economy. For our people, climate change is about survival.”

Tiimon attended the 2009 U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, with I-Kiribati President Anote Tong, who was given hope by world leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd, who was Australia’s prime minister at that time. In Kiribati’s case, climate change can effectively wipe out its history, culture and its people’s connection with their homeland.

“This is about human beings and their rights,” Tiimon said. “Without culture, we have no identity.”

The December climate conference will be a last-ditch effort for many nations — including Kiribati — that soon need to decide if relocation is the only solution for survival.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through Lisa has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.