Aerial shots of Dili after this month's Easter Sunday floods made Timor-Leste's capital look like Venice, with brownish waterways where once there had been roads.
The flood has caused at least 36 deaths, more than 14,000 people are displaced and there is significant damage to infrastructure. Some parts of the country are still cut off. With COVID-19 now circulating in the community, things are only likely to get worse.
The Timor-Leste government has declared a state of calamity and is calling for international help. Australia has pledged to assist one of our nearest neighbours, just as it helped out in Vanuatu this time last year when Tropical Cyclone Harold struck. But there's a mordant irony here: the Dili floods and the increasing intensity and regularity of tropical cyclones buffeting the Pacific are direct consequences of climate change.
In helping out after the fact, Australia is like a firefighter holding a hose with one hand and a box of matches in another. It's only going to get worse. With global temperatures already having risen more than 1 degree since pre-industrial levels, climate science predicts the Pacific will experience both increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall causing flooding, as well as an increase in the intensity of tropical cyclones.
Increasingly, our nearest neighbours are calling Australia's bluff and are asking for more than aid after the disaster. They are asking that Australia make meaningful commitments to addressing climate change.
Australian policy towards climate change is based on triage. Throughout the Pacific, and in Timor-Leste, Australia is ploughing big money into "resilience programs" aimed at "climate adaptation", with buzzwordy names such as "Community-based Climate Change Action Grants" and "Building Resilience to a Changing Climate and Environment" - referred to as BRACCE, an ominously accurate acronym. Australia is presently spending $50 million on an Australian Humanitarian Partnership intended to make communities bearing the brunt of climate change "Disaster READY". The organisation's website is filled with glowing tributes from cheerful villagers. In Vanuatu, as we talked about in the Memorandum of Understanding podcast earlier this week, much of this work involves establishing community disaster and climate change committees (CDCCCs), which perform a Herculean list of tasks in preparing for disasters, managing the relief effort and engaging in climate change adaptation work. These village committee members perform these roles unpaid, and largely unrecognised.
But when the rains start to fall and the winds start to lash, surprise surprise: villagers find they aren't so "Disaster READY" after all. It would be hard to conceive what the villagers and city-dwellers of Timor-Leste were meant to do to be resilient in the face of the large-scale flooding that submerged whole sectors of the city. In Vanuatu, and elsewhere in the Pacific, the impact of repeat category 5 cyclones over a five-year timespan meant the rebuilding after Tropical Cyclone Pam was barely completed before Tropical Cyclone Harold hit.
The scale of these weather events is beyond any local-level resilience and risk-management training, all of which focuses the attention on communities to solve these problems, which are fundamentally related to the geopolitics of climate emissions.
The American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
By that criteria, governments such as Australia have the most exceptional "intelligence": helping out with the aid and climate change programming in the region while simultaneously being the major carbon emitter.
Increasingly, Pacific leadership is calling Australia to account. In 2018, the Pacific Island Forum - the top-level gathering for all Pacific leaders - issued the Boe Declaration, which named climate change as the greatest security threat facing the region. This is not something that can be tackled with Australia's current package of support - resilience initiatives, increased defence co-operation and the opening of security colleges - or with diplomatic pussyfooting.
Australia can no longer bluff its way on climate change. It needs to offer more than Band-Aid solutions. Like the title of the Kainaki II Declaration, signed off by all Pacific leaders and Scott Morrison at an ill-tempered Pacific Island Forum meeting in Tuvalu in 2019, the region continues to call for "Urgent Climate Action Now". In the words of Vanuatu's opposition leader, Ralph Regenvanu, following the Tuvalu meeting: "In the context of the pressing climate threat that faces the Pacific, Australia must understand that relationships in the region are not just about the funding of projects ... the Pacific wants action on climate change and we want it now."
Australia's failure to act on climate change creates growing costs both at home and abroad. Cutesy-named initiatives aren't enough.
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