Wednesday 11 December
At the United Nations climate summit in Madrid this week, Australia will present the case for its carbon emissions targets and resist calls from other countries for stronger commitments. The emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, will claim that Australia is on track to meet its current targets, even though by all measures – except those used by Australia, Russia, Brazil and Ukraine – it is not.
Scott Morrison outlined Australia’s position in September, telling the United Nations: “Australia is responsible for just 1.3 per cent of global emissions. Australia is doing our bit on climate change and we reject any suggestion to the contrary.” But the Coalition’s position – that it is doing enough to address the risks, and that it is futile to act until others do – is not just a denial of science, but of Australian foreign policy.
Australia has a population of 25 million – or about 0.33 per cent of the global population. But this is not the only measure of Australia’s international influence. It is the world’s sixth-largest landmass, the thirteenth-largest economy, and a major source of the world’s iron ore, coal, uranium and beef. And Australia’s share of global emissions, including those from exported resources, is almost 5 per cent.
Furthermore, Australia’s diplomacy is not constrained by its relative smallness. Instead, Australia tries to maximise its clout and shape the world to suit itself. It has largely done this in two ways.
First, it has tried to create international conditions that favour countries of its size. For instance, Australian leaders, particularly Peter Costello and Kevin Rudd, pushed for Australia to be a member of the G20, and for the group to have a prominent role in setting the global economic agenda. This was preferable to leaving the formulation of policy in the hands of groups such as the G7, which excludes Australia. Similarly, it has combined with countries of greater size to promote initiatives that it could not achieve alone, such as working with the US and Japan, respectively, to establish APEC and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Second, Australia has attempted to put all countries on a more level playing field, regardless of size. It has, for example, been a vocal advocate of a strong system of international rules and tribunals to govern areas such as commerce and border disputes. Australia has also been a member of the World Trade Organization since its founding in 1995, and is one of seventy-four countries that have opted in to the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.
Just as Australia has led the effort to crack down on both international tax evasion and the spread of hate speech on social media, it could, if it chose to, push for greater global emissions reductions. Morrison’s argument that, when it comes to climate change, Australia’s commitments should be limited by its share of global emissions is a convenient excuse, rather than an accurate representation of the country’s foreign policy capabilities.
Morrison believes that he, like other leaders before him, is asserting the national interest, even if it earns him international criticism. In 2002, for instance, the Howard government placed limits on the ICJ’s jurisdiction, apparently to reduce Australia’s exposure to maritime claims by newly independent Timor-Leste. Some see this as shrewd realpolitik. Others find it morally repugnant, such as Australian senator Rex Patrick, who has described it as “a historic wrong that needs to be fixed”.
In his approach to global climate action, Morrison seems to believe he is acting in the Howard mould, by seeking to reduce Australia’s costs while encouraging others to pay. But this approach does not apply to climate change, which is set to take a particularly harsh toll on this continent. Unfortunately, Australia’s share of the global damage may exceed 1.3 per cent.
Morrison’s approach to global climate talks is not an example of crafty self-interest. It is, on Australia’s behalf, recklessly self-destructive.