Australia is like an abusive family member knowingly doing damage to future generations by refusing to take meaningful action on climate change, according to former Kiribati president Anote Tong.
In Canberra on Thursday as a guest of The Australia Institute, Mr Tong said Australia risked forcing its friends in the region to look to others including China for leadership unless it commits to an eventual phase down of mining and burning coal.
"What we have today is a country that knows that what it's doing is damaging the future generations yet it continues to do that. What would you do? If a member of your family was actually doing damage to the family would you keep them in place, or ask them to go somewhere else until they can come to their senses?" Mr Tong said.
With an average height of just two metres above sea level, the scattered group of Islands that make up Kiribati are among the most vulnerable in the world to rising sea levels caused by climate change.
Australia has been roundly criticised for its behaviour at the Pacific Islands Forum on Tuvalu earlier this month, after Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other representatives worked to water down a strong consensus from smaller Pacific nations to phase down the use of coal and enact stronger measures to mitigate climate change.
While weathering the storm of criticism from Fiji, Tuvalu and other nations at the Forum, Mr Morrison outlined how Australia's economy was transitioning towards renewable energy and noted that coal dependency was falling.
Mr Tong said that was little comfort for countries struggling for survival that had little choice other than to look for alternatives if their existing relationships were not helping them.
"So if you were in my position as a leader of a country with nothing more to lose because it has lost everything, what would you do? Would you look at the possibility of engaging in a relationship with a perceived enemy with the possibility they may become a friend?
"This is a normal human reaction. If someone is determined to take you down, you don't stick with them you go and look for someone else."
There will come a time when even aid won't matter, when you're talking about my people - my grandchildren, if that money won't buy them a future then what use is it?Former Kiribati President Anote Tong
He said it was reasonable for smaller countries to target Australia for its carbon emissions because unlike larger polluters, Australia had an existing dialogue with the Pacific and was looking to 'step up' its involvement.
"Australia is at the Forum, it is our partner. So we don't have dialogue with China, if they were in the Forum we would raise the same questions," he said.
Mr Tong, who served as Kiribati president from 2003 to 2016, said Australia had pressured him over his country's relationship with Taiwan shortly after he came to office and was told at the time it could jeopardise the relationship with Australia. He believed the country was equally sensitive about smaller nations looking to build closer ties to China.
"I found that extraordinary. There will come a time when even aid won't matter, when you're talking about my people - my grandchildren, if that money won't buy them a future then what use is it?"
Countries including Australia are expected to be called on to aim towards carbon neutrality by 2050 at a climate action summit in New York next month.
Prime Minister Morrison's office was contacted for comment.