Dutton had made the comments as he chatted to Prime Minister Tony Abbott Friday ahead of an event which appeared to be running late, quipping as a microphone hovered overhead that “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to be, you know, have water lapping at your door”.
Abbott had just returned from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) meeting between regional leaders in Papua New Guinea, where combating climate change was a key issue.
“I should have realised the mike was there and didn’t,” Dutton told Sky News.
“But I made a mistake. I apologise to anyone who has taken offence to it. It was a light-hearted discussion with the PM and I didn’t mean any offence to anyone.”
PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who chaired the PIF meeting, on Sunday described Dutton’s comments as “most unfortunate” and pointed out that “people in Pacific Island nations did not cause climate change but they are suffering because of it”.
“Rising sea levels is a serious issue affecting thousands of our people around the Pacific,” O’Neill said in a statement.
“Communities are under threat and they are losing homes and their food source. People around the Pacific are living in fear with each high tide of storm.”
Kiribati’s President Anote Tong, who has actively campaigned for climate change action, said Saturday it was “extremely disappointing that we are making jokes about a very serious issue”.
Leaders at the PIF meeting agreed to disagree after Australia and New Zealand blocked a bid by small island states to limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-Industrial Revolution levels rather than 2 degrees.
The smaller nations had wanted to use the meeting to send a clear message on climate change to global talks in Paris in December.