How the world sees Australia on climate change was one of the more insightful aspects of my time as ambassador for the environment for the past few years.
The world is not one thing and has many actors, so obviously there were different views, even on different elements of our approach to this central challenge. Yet were I to sum up in a word the weight of opinion I experienced, it would be ambivalence.
Intrinsically, we are a global environmental icon because of the remarkable scale, beauty and diversity of our home. We have 16 world heritage sites, and we know they are just the beginning. The Great Barrier Reef conjures wonder wherever you may be in the world. So we are blessed. But we have also looked after this outstanding heritage over successive generations, in the case of our Indigenous peoples going on 60,000 years. The world sees this and so looks to us, bringing significant soft power; but also expectations.
There is also deep respect and demand for our abilities. In a metaphor, when High Commissioner in India we hosted the World Orchestra, constituted by Australian musicians playing key roles in many of the best orchestras in the world. They come together infrequently, practice fleetingly and yet themselves are now recognised as one of the world’s best orchestras.
So it is on climate change, our practitioners have disproportionate influence, whether scientists, academics, lawyers, financiers, innovators, climate development aid specialists and policy-makers. This reflects significant Australian engagement on climate change over the past two decades, albeit with fluctuating rhythm.
And we are appreciated for making a genuine contribution, whether our Paris Agreement commitments, our creativity such as Australia having the largest Green Bank in the world, or our climate diplomacy. On the latter, over three years of negotiations we were widely commended for our influential role in achieving a robust and common set of rules to make the Paris Agreement workable as it commences next year. Beyond the skills, our long-won reputation for being clear-eyed and hard-nosed, when necessary, but fair has many from around the world looking to our leadership.
So there is lots to admire and it duly is across the world. But there were also questions, which is fine – nobody’s perfect. Except these are destabilising fault-lines.
Top of the pack was a persistent and universal question on our debilitating politics around climate change. Not just how many leaders we have lost, why climate change is such a political football, or the convolutions on policy but what it is in our political dynamic that prevents bipartisan approaches against a threat of such magnitude. “You are one of the most vulnerable countries in the world, how is it you just keep attacking each other?” is a representative comment.
When coupled with our evident strengths, Australia is seen as a credible player on climate change internationally. But these questions dog us.
Next was whether we could make a greater contribution, where global focus is sharpening on escalating action and ambition. We can fairly debate the merits of this and our current contribution is not insignificant. We can fairly debate issues around transition from or cleaning up, or some combination, fossil fuels; and this debate is live around the world, spurred by rapid technological change, not something where we are at all unique. It gets harder where our polices disappoint such as our intention to use emissions reductions from the Kyoto Agreements toward our 2030 target, where there is a widespread view that this is not in the spirit of the Paris Agreement. Or where our policies lack detail such as those uncosted around our recent election.
I was also increasingly asked about the extent of our focus on the opportunities from transition to a low-emissions, more climate resilient global economy – including through a long term strategy aligned to the Paris Agreement goals (temperature, adaptation and finance). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates an annual investment requirement of US$1.6 to US$3.8 trillion for clean energy systems to mid-century to keep us on track. Then there are the other sectors; agriculture, industry, health, and urban infrastructure for example. We have distinct competitive advantages, such as among the highest solar radiation in the world. “Do you get it” a counterpart bluntly asked.
Of course, there are answers, perspectives and nuance to bring to such questions. When coupled with our evident strengths, Australia is seen as a credible player on climate change internationally. But these questions dog us. Hence the ambivalence, most recently notable in public comments of concern by some Pacific Island leaders, underlining the broader implications for our foreign policy.
Being viewed with ambivalence won’t serve us well when things are clear. The science on climate change is unequivocal. The world needs to take urgent and increasing action, where ambivalence could quickly turn to something worse.