Navigating Australia & the Campaign to End Coal | Anote Tong

His Excellency, Anote Tong, address the Climate Integrity Summit


Climate change is the greatest moral challenge that humanity has ever had to face, and for those of us who have the capacity to stop it, are we going to do it?

His Excellency Mr Anote Tong addressed the Australia Institute’s Climate Integrity Summit on 20 March 2024.


Before I make my remarks, I would like to acknowledge the elders and the owners of this land and of course the people of this land, which includes all of you here today. And thus the elders to not only allow us to have this exchange, but more importantly to bless us as we journey in finding our way through this very complicated world. Next, I would also like to acknowledge my colleague from Tuvalu, he made a wonderful speech this morning and he’s just coming down now.

Ruffling some feathers

And of course I don’t come with a prepared speech because I knew he was coming and he’s going to cover everything, all I would do is fill in the gaps. But Prime Minister Sopoaga and I are members of the Pacific Elders Voice. What it is is a group of ex leaders like ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, and what we do is we form the group that hopefully we can provide advice, just a commentary on things that are going on in the region. We no longer need to be diplomatic, and I think this is what we do.

And so I’m sure in the process we have ruffled some feathers and for those who feel that we have done it, we’ve not been trying to be rude. We just are trying to do things which we believe are important for our people. So quite often I am labelled an activist. No, I am not an activist. As a former leader, I could not be an activist, but what I am is I’m trying to do things which hopefully I believe will save the future of our young people.

Meme, my wife is here, she keeps me on track and she keeps reminding me that we have more than two dozen grandchildren. And she keeps pushing me to attend these things because I virtually wanted to give up because I said, no, I’m not making any progress. She keeps reminding me, no, you have to do it because of our grandchildren. And so it’s about the grandchildren, your grandchildren, everybody’s grandchildren, including the people in the fossil fuel industry, something which they haven’t come to realise this yet.

And so I want also to thank the Australia Institute for giving us the opportunity to voice the message that we have continued to voice over the decades. And I’ve been here, we’ve been here for the last couple of weeks speaking in different centres, trying to be heard, but I’m sure we are being heard, but just being ignored. And so I don’t want to repeat what’s already been said, but except for maybe one or two things.

A history with Australia

I think what is very clear is the science is no longer to be debated. I remember when I first started talking about climate change when I came into office in 2003 and there was still that noise, loud noise from the fossil fuel industry. The science is not real. There’s nothing, no basis for it. But it was by the fourth assessment reported, which came out in 2007 that really everything was settled. But you know what happened when the fossil fuel industry went silent? Oh my goodness, we won. And then I got woken up one day and said, no, you haven’t won. They’ve got clever, gone underground. They haven’t bothered to invalidate the science. What they’ve done is they captured geo political leaders in the world.

And so because in 2022 as part of the Pacific Elders voice, I came with a former president of Palau to try to make a contribution to your incoming government and the formulation of the policy on climate change. And so we did. Regrettably, we came at the time that the Queen passed, we were supposed to come here and meet a lot of people, but we managed to meet two of your ministers, and I won’t mention any names, but we spoke and we said, we just want to talk about your climate policy. And with pride, he said, oh, we are cutting to zero by 2050.

We waited for more but nothing no more came.  We said, wonderful, minister, but what about your fossil fuel exports? It’s very significant. And the answer was this, “oh, it’s not our problem”.

We looked at each other and said, oh, I couldn’t understand this because before that I had a visit from the then opposition party when I was still in office in 2015. And there was – it may be my misinterpretation, but there was that promise that if the government was to change then things on climate change would change. And so when I came in 22, I walked away, very disappointed because I don’t want to repeat, but nothing has changed.

The bulk of the emissions that Australia continuously deliver is giving it to some other people so they can make money from it and let somebody else take the blame. But I said, but it contributes to global emissions and it doesn’t solve our problem.

The tides will come in, and will not go out

What has the IPCC been saying? It’s very clear in 2014 and 2007, in the fourth assessment report, they said, all you people in the islands have got up to the end of the century to remain viable communities.  By 2022, in the sixth assessment report, the report came and said, no, you don’t have until the end of the century, you’ve got until 2060. All of that was based on the assumption that we would be meeting the Paris targets commitments. That is not happening. And so it may well be in the next assessment report. It may well be by 2040, but this is the reality. Last weekend, you understand how the tides are dictated by the moon, all right, so it was new moon and the tide is very high in the Marshall Islands. The islands were flooded and homes were flooded just below knee level and there is nothing you can do.

It also happened in Tuvalu. There is nothing you can do. We just have to wait for the tide to go. And so they did, but the tide will come again the next day and the next few days gradually receding. But we worried, we rang back to our home because we’ve had the same problem in the past and asked our kids, how did the flooding, they said, no, the usual flooding which comes in and destroys some stuff, we rake it out. But the question is, it’s not always about sea level what happens in the weather. So what happened that made it that flooded Marshall Islands and Tuvalu but not us in the middle because whenever there is a high, the changes in atmospheric pressure and it changes, what probably happened is we pushed the water up into Tuvalu and in the Marshall Islands. And so it has happened. We’ve had an island flooded, terribly flooded, but the rest are okay simply because there is a different pressure zone close by and the marginal rising sea level is magnified many times and you get flooding.

And so these are the things that we must understand that it’s not about what they record as the rising sea level. It’s about what happens in the weather. I’ve always contended that our immediate problem is not the rising sea level or the gradual rise in sea level, but it’s going to be the change in the weather pattern. We’re on the equator, so we create cyclones and we send them to our friends in Fiji, but they’re not supposed to come back. But in 2015 it did. Cyclone Pam in 2015 destroyed Vanuatu, but it went back up north flooded the islands in Tuvalu, flooded our south on both islands. Flooding means the sea is coming over from one side of the island and crossing over and a lot of damage. What happens is when that happens, our fresh water lands, we get our fresh water from the ground.

That’s how we live. We don’t have a water supply system from the rivers. We don’t have rivers. And so when that happens, that is contaminated. We have to wait for that to be flushed out with the rains. Food crops are destroyed and life disrupted. So this is the reality of what it is that we have to live with. Climate change I think needs to be understood that it’s not coming. It’s not 2060 that things will suddenly happen. They are happening now. All that’s going to happen is they will get worse, more intense and they’ll become more frequent until the day will come when the tides will come in, and will not go out.

And the question will be where do we go? Where do we go?

And this is an issue that I’ve been struggling with all of the time that I was in office, attending conferences, different parts of the world, trying to convey this message and hoping that one day I can come back home and say, don’t worry, all of this noise about climate change, the threat to our survival, our future, we have a solution. This is a solution. There is so far, no such solution. I went around different parts of the world. I went to Japan and I looked at floating islands and people must think I’m crazy, but we are facing a crazy situation and we cannot rest until we can provide some kind of guaranteed security for our future generations. And so this is what makes it so difficult for us to understand what your governments have been doing here in Australia. How can they feel they profess to be Christians, a Christian would not, don’t do unto others what he would not have done unto you, I think. Is that correct? That’s the code, isn’t it?

But how come knowing very well the science, how come that your political leaders are still doing what they know? Because I’m sure they’re smart people. What they know will destroy our future. Why is this? The prime minister this morning talked about what it means to be have your sovereignty taken off you, well this is what we are facing. I don’t know. I’ve been talking to people over the years, a few days back in Melbourne, I was talking to people about raising the islands. That might be an option. Tuvalu is going through the process now, but how high can we raise the islands? If the science says that if the Greenland ice shields were to melt, then it would mean a six to seven metre rise in sea level. If the doomsday glacier down south, where to it would mean something like 60 to 70 metres.

So what is the future? How can we continue to laugh and say that it’s water lapping at your door?

Okay, that’s a wonderful joke, isn’t it? But I tell you, it is not a joke. It is the reality of what it is that we are facing. It is the reality of what it is that we will face. We watch our grandchildren playing and we ponder what is to become of them.

What can we do?

What is Australia doing as a government? I know we get development assistance to build our climate resilience. Isn’t it funny that we are getting that assistance but at the same time, you’re doing the very thing that is destroying our homes. So maybe we are so stupid as not to see this, but I think it’s important to understand that climate change, I mean, I’ve always said this from the beginning when I started talking about climate change, it’s the greatest moral challenge that humanity has ever had to face. And the reason is because for those of us who have the capacity to stop it or to do something about it, are we going to do it? And that is the moral challenge because here in a very wealthy country, as Richard said this morning, a country of people of integrity, I hope, yet they’re doing that precisely.

I don’t know, does it needs to be spelled out to say what you’re doing is destroying the homes of people like us, our future, the future of our grandchildren? And so these are the contradictions that I have failed to understand coming away in 2022 in deep disappointment, I asked people, Hey, what’s happening? How come what I expected to happen is not happening? They didn’t say anything, but they just said, and I had listened to one of the foremost economists, I don’t know, you may know him, Jeffrey Sachs, advisor to the different governments in the United States. And he said outright in the United States, their leaders have been captured by the people they’re supposed to regulate. And he was suggesting when he came here in 2018 that maybe it is also happening here in Australia. So we have your democracy under attack. Do you believe your vote really counts or is it what you pay for the campaign? And so the question that how can you change this?

I was asked question in Adelaide, what can we do? Well, what you can do is change your policy because what’s got to be truly understood is climate change is not just a Pacific problem, it’s an Australian problem. You know that you experienced that in 2019 and 2020. You experienced that in 2022.

What you can do is when the floods come, you can go into Hawaii or wherever else for the holiday, but you can afford, for those of you that can afford it, we can’t afford that. And the question is how do we survive this? And so this is the challenge that is here. We are talking about the integrity here. It’s a climate integrity summit. Why is it a matter of integrity? Because if you believe yourself to be a moral man and a person of integrity, prove it by doing the right thing. It’s so simple. I warn my wife, wink at me when I’m going over too much time because I do want to invite some questions. But before I do that, I think leadership is absolutely vital. Not political leadership, but people, including leaders who will do the right thing, have the courage, the morality to do the right thing. Let me stop there. So I give you time to ask some questions.


Thank you. Anote Tong, we’ve got a couple of Australia Institute staff members on the stairs on the side. We’ve got time for two questions, one from each side of the room and, a reminder, questions please. Thank you. This side first.

Audience Question: Thank you. Thank you Your Excellency for those words. I just wonder if you could give us your thoughts briefly around the role of debt and particularly integrity in relating to debt when it comes to countries such as Vanuatu that you mentioned that are now in a constant state of recovery and are having to take on debt and make decisions about debt in order to meet these needs. What do you see as the role of a country like Australia or other large emitters when it comes to addressing that aspect of this crisis?

Anote Tong: Okay, let me not answer your question directly, but let’s say this. When I was here in 2022, we were pushing, peddling this idea. And of course the response was it’s a huge commitment if Australia was to make any contribution to relieving either debt or building resilience. But we were still here when AUKUS was signed. And so we looked and said, my goodness, there’s $368 billion available in a flash. So it’s a question of integrity. It’s a question of morality and your willingness to do what is necessary.

Audience Question: Hi, my heart goes out to you and your people. I cannot understand or comprehend what you’re going through. I want to ask a difficult question though. What do you say to the money? To the people who think about budgets. You’ve been in a leadership position when the leaders say to do this, to run our country, we need to do these things. We need to sell coal. We need to make the budget balance.

Anote Tong: Ok, I think I don’t need to answer that. I think there’s several studies, and I know these Australian Institute has shown this. There is a piece of paper I think already distributed that shows you that the contribution of the fossil fuel industry is so small. I think Richard made it very clear that the fossil fuel industry, which are owned by foreign countries, is not paying any tax. Yet at the same time, you are paying the subsidies of $11 billion every year. You don’t know this, but if you did, would you willingly do that?

So it’s not the question of needing the coal to balance your budget, it doesn’t make sense at all. And the only logical explanation that I can think of is somebody’s benefiting if not the people, because you are paying through your tax. Somebody else is paying, is winning, but certainly the fossil fuel industry is winning. So where is Australia’s gain? I hope it’s not the politicians.

Thank you. Those are the two questions and thank you so very much.

His Excellency Anote Tong, Former President of Kiribati at the Australia Institute’s Climate Integrity Summit 2024

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