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Pacific leaders fear climate change campaign will 'lose momentum' amid COVID-19 pandemic

ABC Health logo ABC Health 18/06/2020 By foreign affairs reporter Melissa Clarke
a group of people on a beach with a palm tree: Senior Pacific leaders say climate change, like coronavirus, also has health impacts. (Flickr: Kyle Post) © Provided by ABC Health Senior Pacific leaders say climate change, like coronavirus, also has health impacts. (Flickr: Kyle Post)

Pacific leaders have said action on climate change "cannot and should not" take a back seat during the COVID-19 pandemic and have appealed for Australia to help rally global support for more emissions cuts.

Senior political leaders from both the Fijian and Samoan governments have raised concerns that climate change is being overlooked while global leaders and the media focus on the coronavirus.

The Fijian Government, which has been a strong critic of Australia for not doing more to reduce carbon emissions, has said the urgency for addressing climate change has not abated.

"It may appear that climate change has taken a back seat, but it cannot and should not," Fiji's Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said.

Taking part in an online forum hosted by the Australian National University (ANU) on Thursday, Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said the impacts of climate change were being felt every day by Fijians.

"Climate change is a reality and we cannot lift our foot off the pedal," he said.

Pacific nations regard climate change as an existential threat, with changing weather systems affecting sea levels, fish stocks, water quality and the frequency of severe weather events.

Samoa's Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, speaking on the same forum, said it is important attention isn't diverted from climate change.

"We're talking about a pandemic, but… climate change impacts us in all aspects of our lives, including health as well."

Pacific Island nations have been trying to get all countries to agree to register more ambitious emissions reductions targets under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Ms Mata'afa is concerned their campaign could "lose momentum" during the pandemic and appealed for Australia's help.

"I think it is very important for Australia, as a member of the Pacific [Islands] Forum, that it comes in strongly as one of our larger members, with the Pacific and the message: to ensure that the 1.5 [degree] objective that we've been advocating for and that we raise the global ambition in regards to [cutting] emissions."

Pacific nations have previously expressed their disappointment that Australia has not fully embraced their calls for more global action.

Many Pacific countries were able to prevent COVID-19 from reaching their shores by imposing strict international travel bans.

Other nations, including Fiji, have been able to contain small outbreaks.

But despite their success in holding the coronavirus at bay, Pacific countries are among the hardest hit economically.

Heavy reliance on international tourism has seen the major source of income for many governments dry up completely.

Despite the dire economic conditions, Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said it was more important than ever to protect the environment.

"In response to COVID-19, there may be an urge by a lot of people for economic growth, to perhaps drop the guard on climate change," he said.

"We cannot compromise, for example, on environmental standards.

"Tourists come to Fiji because they love snorkelling, they like the pristine environment. You cannot kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

"If we don't help the environment… stop the acidification, then obviously there's a much bigger impact on the overall economic productivity and output of the country."

Minister for International Development and the Pacific Alex Hawke took part in the ANU event as well, joining from his parliamentary office in Canberra.

But as the issue of climate change was being discussed, he was required to leave in order to cast a vote in the House of Representatives.

The ABC contacted the Minister for a response to the comments made by Ms Mata'afa and Mr Sayed-Khaiyum.

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