Australia’s climate-security support for Tuvalu a leap in the right direction
16 Nov 2023| and

The Falepili Union, a security treaty between Australia and Tuvalu announced at the conclusion of last week’s Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting, is a huge leap forward for tackling climate change—the existential security threat for Pacific island countries—and a great example of Australian leadership in securing the region’s future. The message has been well received in the Pacific, which recognises that long-term security lies in working together and creating highly tailored agreements and support mechanisms that will build upon underlying regional processes and values.

The Falepili Union will establish special visa arrangements for Tuvaluan citizens to live, work and study in Australia; generate a commitment to collective security between the two countries; and greatly expand on Australian support to Tuvalu’s climate adaptation needs. In essence, these climate adaptation and special visa arrangements provide Tuvaluans with options, including the ability to move back and forth between Australia and Tuvalu, strengthening cultural ties and supporting further education and economic development.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called the treaty ‘the most significant agreement between Australia and a Pacific island nation ever’, and Foreign Minister Penny Wong said it was the most significant step since Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975. One question following the treaty’s signing is whether it is a lone agreement or part of Australia’s strategic plan for addressing the broader Pacific’s climate security risks. If it leads to other agreements across the region that secure the Pacific’s future in the face of unrelenting, catastrophic climate change, there will be no denying its historical importance. Already it has made history in recognising through treaty Tuvalu’s ongoing statehood, regardless of what a changing climate may do the land.

The treaty is first and foremost a security initiative. It has extensive implications for Australian defence and demonstrates the value of maintaining Australia as the security partner of choice against China’s growing footprint. But here we will highlight why it is a great example of security-sensitive climate-adaptation policy and what needs to happen next.

There are ethical arguments to be made for high-emitting nations like Australia to invest in Pacific island nations and provide a human mobility pathway. Rightly, the agreement reflects former president of Kiribati Anote Tong’s vision of ‘migration with dignity’ in the face of rising sea-levels—a pathway where Tuvaluans can study, work and contribute rather than be treated as helpless refugees.

Nonetheless, at its core the treaty recognises the collective security implications of a climate-disrupted Pacific. Pacific nations need the mobility and disaster support offered by this kind of agreement as a source of hope and optimism for their futures—while Australia has secured its interests in a nation responsible for a significant exclusive economic zone in the South Pacific.

The United Nations now estimates the annual gap between adaptation needs and costs in developing countries to be 10 to 18 times higher than current financing (US$21.3 billion). Pacific needs alone will be high in the years ahead—particularly to invest in the kinds of infrastructure required to help Pacific islanders remain in their homes rather than relocate.

Tuvalu has embarked on a project to create a digital replica of its nation to maintain state function, culture and connection in the event the islands are lost or made uninhabitable—but the main goal remains saving the real Tuvalu. As a contribution to those needs, Albanese announced a $350 million investment in the Pacific Climate Infrastructure Financing Partnership, which includes a $16.9 million contribution to Tuvalu’s land reclamation efforts. The funding will also contribute to the new Pacific Resilience Facility.

This investment will help boost Tuvalu’s and the Pacific’s climate resilience, but as part of a strategy to sustain Australia’s role as partner of choice in the region it can’t be the end of the road. Future investments will need to proportionally match the Pacific’s rapidly intensifying climate impacts (including those that could significantly drive sea-level rise) and the Australian Defence Force will need to be adequately equipped to meet Tuvalu’s disaster-relief needs as well as the needs of Australia and the broader Pacific. Australia has left the door open to allow more than just 280 Tuvaluans in annually; otherwise, Tuvalu’s 11,000 people could still be waiting to migrate at around the same time that more than half the country is below the average high-tide mark.

Although this treaty will undoubtedly face some colonialist labelling, as well as criticism that Australia is still not doing enough to curb its fossil-fuel emissions, Albanese has rightly acknowledged that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the region. Tuvalu came to Australia with a problem and they worked together to forge a mutually beneficial path forward. While not all government decisions can be made with prior in-depth public consultation, there’s now an opportunity for Australia and Tuvalu to jointly engage, inform and listen to the Tuvaluan public in the coming months. There’s high confidence that the treaty will be ratified by Tuvalu’s next government after the country’s January 2024 election.

Other Pacific leaders have also so far been supportive of the agreement, and each Pacific country will find what works for its people, as noted by Kiribati President Taneti Maamau. Australia must be agile and adaptable in its support and look to include other Pacific countries in those discussions. Solution-focused sharing of stories, knowledge and experience drawing on the strengths of Pacific people will be essential across the region.

When it comes to tailoring its approach to climate security and migration for other countries, Australia will likely face some tougher decisions. Tuvalu’s struggle against rising sea levels is a glaring threat, but the other effects facing larger Pacific island countries, such as land salination, drought and coral reef destruction, while less noticeable than standing waist-deep in the Pacific Ocean are no less devastating. Through the Falepili Union, Australia has shown an ability to adjust to both the climate and security environments and, while bespoke, will likely set a precedent for being willing to support even broader migration and funding climate adaptation.