WELLINGTON: Pacific leaders warned the world faces a climate crisis but complained their message on global warming had been "watered down" at Australia's insistence.
The annual Pacific Island Forum wrapped up in Tuvalu late Thursday (Aug 15) with Australia and the group's 17 other members sharply at odds on climate change, potentially undermining Canberra's efforts to curb China's growing influence in the region.
Leaders of island nations, many of which are threatened by rising seas, talked tough throughout the summit, criticising Australia's lack of action on the "existential threat" of global warming.
Their aim was to issue a compelling global call to action from nations on the frontline of climate change ahead of UN talks in New York next month.
But Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga conceded that a climate statement and communique released in the early hours of Friday morning after 12 hours of tense negotiations fell short of expectations.
"I think we can say we should've done more work for our people," he told reporters.
The PIF statements refer to a climate crisis and reiterate previous warnings that global warming is the most serious threat facing the Pacific.
"The time to act is now," the leaders said.
But there was no direct mention of ending coal-fired power, while calls to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius and achieve zero net carbon emissions by 2050 were couched as suggestions rather than demands.
"We came together in a nation that risks disappearing to the seas, but unfortunately, we settled for the status quo in our communique," Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama tweeted.
"Watered-down climate language has real consequences - like water-logged homes, schools, communities, and ancestral burial grounds."
Sopoaga said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was behind the compromised language.
"We expressed very strongly during our exchange, between me and Scott, I said: 'You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia ... I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu'," he said.
Morrison, who has long championed Australia's lucrative coal industry, concedes climate change is real but insists it can be managed in a way that does not hurt the economy.
He denied differences with PIF leaders over climate would damage Australia's "Pacific step-up", a push to restore Canberra' leadership credentials in the region and push back against Beijing's diplomatic inroads.
"We showed up, we're stepping up, and it's getting on," the Australian leader said.
Australia, the largest and wealthiest PIF member, fears that China's long-term plan is to establish a military base in the Pacific.
But Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Malielegaoi said this week that Pacific leaders would not turn away a generous aid donor.
"Their enemies (Australia and its allies) are not our enemies," he said.