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Tax carbon, not people: UN chief issues climate plea from Pacific 'frontline'

Antonio Guterres hears from leaders at Fiji summit who warn region is facing ‘an unprecedented global catastrophe’
A young boy plays in the shallows of the Funafuti lagoon, Tuvalu
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said Pacific islands were ‘on the frontline of climate change’. Photograph: Sean Gallagher/The Guardian

Governments around the world must introduce carbon taxes, halt plans for new coal plants and accelerate the closure of existing ones if damage to the Pacific from climate change is to be limited, the UN secretary general has told Pacific leaders on his first visit to the region.

Antonio Guterres met leaders of Pacific countries in Fiji, on a trip that will also see him visit Vanuatu, considered one of the countries most vulnerable to natural disasters due to climate change, and Tuvalu, which is at risk of sinking under rising waters.

Speaking after meetings in Suva on Wednesday, Guterres acknowledged the region was “on the frontline of climate change” and its people were “important allies in the fight against it”.

“Here in the Pacific, sea-level rise in some countries is four times greater than the global average and is an existential threat to some island states,” he said.

“My messages to governments around the world from the Pacific are clear: first, shift taxes from salaries to carbon. Tax pollution, not people. Second, stop subsidising fossil fuels. Taxpayer money should not be used to boost hurricanes, spread drought and heatwaves, melt glaciers, and bleach corals. Third, stop building new coal plants by 2020.”

Sea ice is projected to shrink in both the Arctic and Antarctic. In some projections, Arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st century.

His comments came in the closing days of the Australian election campaign, where climate action is a key issue.

Leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum told Guterres they were “running out of time” and asked him to share a message of urgency with the world, saying they were facing “an unprecedented global catastrophe”.

“The blue Pacific – our great ocean continent, our thousands of islands, our strong and resilient people – is running out of time,” said forum leaders in a statement.

“All countries, with no caveats, must agree to take decisive and transformative action to reduce global emissions ... If we do not, we will lose. We will lose our homes, our ways of life, our wellbeing and our livelihoods. We know this because we are experiencing loss already.”

United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres Pinterest
United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres Photograph: Michael Bradley/AFP/Getty Images

Guterres said climate change particularly affected women, offering the example of the effect of salinisation of food crops on pregnant women and newborn health, and said women needed to be involved in all decisions related to climate change.

“There can be no successful response to a changing climate without also changing mindsets about the role of women in prevention and response,” he said.

Dr Tess Newton Cain, a Pacific analyst and visiting fellow at the Australian National University, said this message was particularly important given there was only one national Pacific leader who was a woman – Hilda Heine, president of the Marshall Islands.

Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations leads to increasing acidification of the Ocean. Projections give reductions in average global surface Ocean pH of between 0.14 and 0.35 units over the 21st century, adding to the present decrease of 0.1 units since pre-industrial times.

She also said Guterres’ visit was very timely in light of the climate summit in September and that Pacific voices should be key in shaping the agenda.

“What I was particularly struck by was that he was at pains to flag very clearly that not only are Pacific countries on the frontlines when it comes to being victims of climate change impacts but more importantly they’re on the frontline when it comes to resilience and innovation and global leadership,” she said.

“These are small countries that have really not allowed themselves to be seen as hapless victims but they have grasped opportunities to take things forward and lead by example, it’s very pleasing that the UN secretary general has acknowledged that.”