Samoan activist heading to NY to challenge big polluters

A Samoan climate activist heading to New York this week is hoping large, polluting countries will finally commit to renewable energy and closing their coal plants.

Auimatagi Joseph Moeono-Kolio, Greenpeace's Head of the Pacific, said it’s time polluting nations start taking the plight of Pacific Islands seriously.

“I’m excited to see what exactly these countries are planning to do,” Auimatagi said.

“The majority of people who are attending want to see something happen, and definitely civil society will be there to keep leaders accountable and make sure voices of vulnerable people are heard.

“But ultimately it’s down to political leaders to turn up, and bring their plans.”

Next week leaders are gathering in New York for the United Nations Climate Summit, organised by Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

He is demanding plans and not speeches from those attending, and serious commitments reducing national greenhouse gas emissions, moving to zero by 2050.

And with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison not even attending the summit, sending instead Foreign Minister Marise Payne, activists like Auimatagi are not impressed.

Paraphrasing New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, Auimatagi said Australia, as a member of the Pacific, is just doing not their part.

“They are actually making things worse.

“Australia, and particularly Scott Morrison, throw around speeches, but you can’t really call the Pacific family when you are actively burning down your family’s house, so to speak.” 

“When you have got a Prime Minister who is a climate sceptic and a cabinet full of people like that it is difficult to see how genuine Australia really is about actual climate mitigation.”

But he is confident other leaders will be bringing concrete plans and making space for the voices of vulnerable people to be heard.

Among the leaders is a large contingent of youth climate activists, including Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager who recently completed a journey by sailboat to New York to cut down on emissions caused by flights.

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She has been a loud voice on climate change, urging leaders to act soon, and pushing children to strike from school while their governments don’t act.

“I think of our own Brianna Fruean from Samoa who was the first one from our region to do the same thing, and all these other young people who are pretty much crying out as a voice for not only this generation of young people but also future generations who stand to inherit a very degraded planet unless we do something now.”

The United Nations has recognised the impact young people are having on the climate change conversation, and made room for them in this year’s summit.

“It proves young people are catalysts for climate action, they are the leaders driving climate action and will be showcasing their innovation and ideas.”

Auimatagi said while all Pacific Island nations will have different priorities, they all agree that fossil fuels have got to be cut in order for them to survive, and that developed countries must free up financing to help them adapt to the crisis.

“We want to see countries commit to shutting down coal plants, to stop using oil, and to start bringing plans to go renewable,” he said.

“We need fossil fuels to end now, we need carbon neutrality.

“We need to make sure Pacific Island countries have access to climate finance, because unlike other places we are already dealing with the effects of climate change and we need to be able to adapt to the current effects so we are resilient enough for what is down the line.”

The Paris Agreement, signed in 2016 was a landmark agreement between 195 countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and focused on mitigation, adaptation and climate finance, in particular for small island developing states. 

Countries like Australia have been accused in the past of using ‘dodgy accounting tricks’ to meet their national contribution to the agreement, and Auimatagi wants that to stop.

But he is optimistic that the real and visible threat of climate change to low-lying islands will galvanise world leaders to act.

“It has raised the moral leadership of the Pacific on this issue, because people know, unless you’re a right-wing Australian commentator that our only interest in this is to ensure survival of the islands, and the planet as a whole.

“We need large polluting countries to own up, front up, and honour the commitments they made in the Paris Agreement, and actually make a concerted, honest effort to meet these targets.”

He also acknowledged the work of a long-serving leader: the late Tongan Prime Minister ʻAkilisi Pōhiva, who passed away on the 12th of September. 

“Definitely among Pacific leaders and senior officials this will be seen as loss,” Auimatagi said.

“My lasting impression of Prime Minister Pohiva was at the last Forum meeting when we teared up because he could see what Australia was doing and how Australia’s actions would affect his own people in Tonga but also the Pacific as a whole.

“There is respect across the region for what he tried to fight for and his legacy.”

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