Environment & energy, Government and governance, International relations | Australia

16 January 2020

With the world’s eyes on the bushfire crisis, Australia must establish itself as a global leader on climate action, Tom Swann writes.

Engulfed in flames and harrowed by loss, Australians are living a national nightmare and there is no end in sight.

The world has heated by just one degree Celsius.  On current policy, the world is on track to be heated by at least three degrees by the end of this century.

Australia has not experienced its bushfire nightmare alone. Across the world, the nation’s inferno has made front page news – from The New York Times, Gulf News, to The Straits Times – hitting television screens and being shared across the planet.

Watching from afar, people are shocked and afraid. Not just for Australians, but for everyone in a heating world.

Among that shock and fear, the crisis gives Australia a powerful diplomatic opportunity.

More on this: Podcast: Beyond declaring a climate emergency

Australia’s leaders could wield great authority and leverage, if they speak from the heart, link the crisis with those escalating around the world, and show some credible leadership.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is right to say Australia cannot solve climate change alone, but Australia can, and must, do more. This is a global problem needing a global solution.

The Prime Minister is right, as he now admits, that these fires are fueled by climate change, but if he wants to stop the fires from getting so much worse, and if he wants Australians to believe this is what he wants, he should use the global attention on this unprecedented crisis to push for greater global action.

Condolences and offers of aid have come from far afield, from celebrities and billionaires, from the United Kingdom and New Zealand, the United States and Canada, from Singapore, and many more.

Seemingly every celebrity at the Golden Globes had something to say about Australia, many calling for climate action. Russell Crowe urged the audience to understand “the tragedy unfolding in Australia is climate change based.”

Even fossil fuel companies have felt the need to donate to bushfire appeals, perhaps reflecting concern about damage the disaster might do to their social license.

Writing to express support for Australia, the Prime Minister of Pakistan linked the fires to climate change and was “sure this crisis will also create the opportunity for greater international collaboration to reinforce the imperative of collective solutions” – a friendly suggestion that Australia has a huge diplomatic opportunity right now and we might like to use it.

Most humbling has been the support and aid from Pacific Island nations. It was only last year that Scott Morrison’s behaviour ‘stunned’ the Pacific Island Forum, leaving pacific leaders feeling they were told to ‘shut up’ about climate change.

More on this:smoldering bushland Live blog: Bushfire analysis and opinion

Pacific Island countries know a climate crisis when they see one. They now stand in solidarity with Australia. It is time Australia stood in solidarity with the Pacific, and all people facing rising climate impacts. Australia’s willingness to throw more fuel on the fire while denying responsibility is hard for many international observers to understand. It is even more incongruous now that our country is literally on fire.

In a House of Commons debate, Tory, Labour, and Scottish National Party MPs called on Australia to up its emissions targets. The Speaker said the fires are a wakeup call. If Australia is to make some good come of this crisis, it must get its own house in order.

The climate doesn’t care about accounting tricks. Australia must abandon plans to avoid cutting emissions by ‘carrying over’ old Kyoto credits into the Paris Agreement.

The carryover plan has no legal basis, no environmental justification, and is opposed by countries as diverse as Japan, the United Kingdom, and Fiji. At the last talks, government directions to protect the credits resulted in Australia blocking a key agreement on carbon trading.

The next United Nations talks are in Glasgow in December. Australia should signal immediately it will abandon the carryover trick and take credible steps to genuinely meet its emissions target.

More powerful still, Australia could join many other countries in increasing its emission targets this year. It could then urge other countries to join us in preventing the disasters from getting worse.

There are numerous meetings this year where Australia could push for global action, and it should do so at all of them, from the G20 and APEC to the East Asia Summit. Each forum gives the government a chance to link the fires with disasters around the world and other global agendas, from trade to security. They give Australia influence. They are a chance to urge the United States to stay in the Paris agreement, or to push China to increase its emission efforts.

Australia could stand with its neighbours at the Pacific Island Forum, this year in Vanuatu. Repeatedly since 2015, Pacific Island nations have asked for Australia’s help in establishing a dialogue towards a global moratorium on new coal mines.

By answering this call for help, it would rebuild trust in the Pacific, protect existing coal mines, and support meaningful climate action. As the world’s biggest coal exporter, Australia’s support for this idea would have great influence.

This may all seem like wishful thinking, but Australia has entered uncharted territory. Just a few weeks ago, the bushfires belonged to state governments, the budget surplus was a defining promise, and linking fires to climate change was the domain of ‘raving inner-city lunatics’. On each position, the government has been forced to backflip.

Australia’s fossil fuel industry plays an oversized role in stoking climate disasters. Despite all the destruction of the fires, the global attention and concern for the crisis could allow Australia to play an equally large role in leading global action.

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