22 January 2020
Earlier this month, residents in South America experienced a phenomenon that has become a defining feature of this Australian summer: a blood-red sun set against a hazy sky.
The cause, according to Argentina’s national meteorological service, was the smoke from Australia’s bushfires, which had drifted more than 12,000 kilometres to the east. As well as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, countries closer to home have been affected, including French Polynesia and New Zealand. NASA has since reported that the smoke had circumnavigated the planet and was “affecting atmospheric conditions globally”.
Australia’s bushfires are an international phenomenon. They have dominated global headlines and led to offers of support from Donald Trump, Roger Federer, and the government of Papua New Guinea, which is the world’s 184th wealthiest nation. Beyond the smoke, the fires have emitted about 400 million tonnes of carbon – almost as much as Australia’s total annual emissions.
As federal and state governments respond to this disaster, they need to consider the international dimension. Smoke and emissions – currently Australia’s best-known exports – do not observe borders. As the smoke goes global, Australia seems self-destructive and irresponsible. Last week, in a Financial Times column titled “Australia is no longer the lucky country”, foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman wrote, “The country’s go-slow approach to international climate negotiations [looks] increasingly like an act of self-harm, rather than a shrewd defence of the national interest.”
Australian leadership on climate change is essential to addressing the bushfire threat, but it would also have far-reaching diplomatic benefits. The federal Coalition must finally develop a national plan to curb carbon emissions. Its lack of a climate policy has already damaged Scott Morrison’s efforts to improve relations with Australia’s Pacific neighbours and led to international criticism of Australia at December’s United Nations climate change summit in Madrid. The bushfires have only further highlighted Morrison’s intransigence.
Aside from improving the nation’s reputation and preventing other countries from using Australia’s poor example to justify inadequate policy, Australian leadership on climate change would provide opportunities to deepen Australia’s foreign ties. As Australia adjusts its aid program to focus on Pacific countries and reduces funding across South-East Asia, international collaboration on climate change could help to replace the role that development programs have played in improving Australia’s regional ties.
Indonesia, in particular, would be an obvious partner. Australia and Indonesia have a history of strained relations, yet cooperation on issues such as disaster relief and counterterrorism have helped to develop close security and diplomatic ties. When it comes to climate policy, these neighbours have much in common: they are the world’s two largest coal exporters, and both have experienced forest fires that have left them at risk of failing to meet internationally agreed emission targets. Last Thursday, an editorial in The Jakarta Post called for greater cooperation on climate change between the two countries, observing that Australia’s bushfires occurred as Indonesia suffered severe floods which killed more than sixty people. “Working together on better mitigation of disasters would be much more productive than blaming governments”, the newspaper said.
In addition, Australia’s vast potential to develop renewable energy could put it at the centre of a new international trade in green power. There are already plans, for instance, to build a A$20 billion solar farm in the Northern Territory that would generate a fifth of Singapore’s electricity needs. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has demonstrated how trade clout can be converted into diplomatic influence; Australia’s renewable capacity could have similar benefits and help to develop a new network of regional ties and interdependencies.
Australia’s bushfires are causing global damage to the environment. Other countries have a stake in the response. Australia could lead the push for international solutions while deepening ties with countries in the region with which it sometimes struggles to find common ground. Or it could just keep slouching.