Climate of fear: the politics of Australia’s climate diplomacy strategy



When it comes to climate change and environmental issues, Australia’s domestic and international approaches could not be more different. While Canberra continues to grapple with the ‘climate wars’ and legislating relatively unambitious emissions reduction targets, climate change forms a critical part of its foreign and defence policies – they outwardly acknowledge the risks climate change will pose to economic development, food and water resources, and regional and national security. These approaches form part of Australia’s broader policy of climate diplomacy; framing climate change as an issue of not only environmental but economic, political and national security.

Australia sits in an area known colloquially as the ‘disaster alley’ that is more susceptible to climate change than others. Numerous submissions to the Foreign Policy White Paper process in 2017 emphasised the economic and political risks stemming from climate change in the Indo-Pacific.

In terms of security, the Indo-Pacific is already an area hotly contested by regional powers seeking to assert their military and political influence. Climate change would exacerbate these contests as water and food security, resources and political stability become a greater threat to Canberra.

Canberra’s climate diplomacy seeks to integrate these dimensions of climate change into its defence and foreign policies. It offers a series of regionally-oriented, community-based grants and adaptation programs, including partnerships on responsible forestry practices in Asia and a 2016 contribution of AU$300 million over four years to support adaptation, mitigation and disaster management in the Pacific. In 2015, the Turnbull government announced an AU$1 billion pledge to climate finance over five years via grants dealing with mitigation and adaptation to nations most at risk from the effects of climate change.

Australia is also party to a number of international agreements on environmental issues, many of which focus on investment in green technology. Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper additionally emphasises the importance of climate change adaptation in relation to future state fragility and defence capacity. Recent Senate reports have also recognised the long-term risks of climate change to national, regional and international security.

While Australia’s program of regional and global climate diplomacy is substantial, its domestic support has endured a patchier history. With the emergence of international environmental regulation in the late 1980s, Australia took a leading role in domestic and global regulation of emissions. However, the Howard era took a very different position with its public rejection of multilateral environmental agreements and focus on economic growth – most notably, it forced extraordinary concessions to be placed on the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to increase its carbon emissions, whilst other nations drastically cut theirs.

The subsequent Rudd-Gillard governments sought to rebuild Australia’s global environmental reputation, particularly emphasising Canberra’s role as a middle power and regional partner.

In recent years, climate diplomacy has been significantly diminished. While Australia did sign the Paris Agreement – albeit with some reluctance – it has lacked high-level representation at a number of UN climate talks, and was criticised by failing to include climate change as an agenda item at the 2014 G20 summit in Brisbane.

Political leaders have been reluctant to act domestically for fear of negative economic or political consequences, as seen with the downfall of the Turnbull government after its abandonment of the National Energy Guarantee, which would have legislated Australia’s emissions targets set out in the Paris Agreement.

This lack of strong domestic action and political toxicity means that, while ambitious, Australia’s climate diplomacy remains ineffective. By pursuing unambitious environmental policies and continuing to delay action on implementing global frameworks, Canberra risks doing further damage to its global reputation. It already endures heavy criticism from Pacific Island leaders because of its continued focus on emissions-intensive economic activity, even going so far as to place Australia within a ‘coalition of the selfish’. Given Australia’s newfound focus on the Pacific to counter Beijing’s military and political influence, earning the trust of Indo-Pacific leaders and communities is paramount to its future diplomatic objectives.

Internationally, the effectiveness of Australia’s climate diplomacy can be improved by considering more ambitious climate targets, defence preparedness and to better use its position as a middle power and Indo-Pacific partner to promote greater mitigation, adaptation and disaster reduction efforts. However, as with all things diplomatic, climate change needs to bridge the national and the international divide – leaders must have the political will to develop effective, long-term domestic policies on climate change and align Australia’s national interests with that of environmental and climate issues.

The new Morrison government has an opportunity to look beyond short-term interests and align its domestic policies with its defence and foreign policies, creating a truly holistic and effective climate diplomacy strategy. However, with the political turmoil over the past ten years that followed attempts to act on climate change domestically, the pursuit of an aligned climate diplomacy agenda may be a distant dream.

Euan Moyle is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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