For over a decade, domestic political drivers have crippled Australia’s climate change policy ambition and cut Australia adrift from the international zeitgeist on climate change.
Australia’s global reputation on climate policy is in a rut, and the election of a climate change-focused Biden administration in the United States bodes ominously for Australia. With the added gift of victory in the Georgia Senate runoffs, the incoming Biden administration also now has control over the Senate. This provides an opportunity to pursue the policy platform it campaigned on, in which climate change featured heavily.
As a result, any space created by the Trump administration for Australia to abscond from responsibility will rapidly disappear. Without substantial change to its policy settings and the overarching narrative about climate change, Australia will continue to be exposed to criticism that undermines its foreign policy ambitions.
President-elect Joe Biden has stated that his administration will re-engage the United States in the international arena, including by re-entering the Paris Agreement. He has also stated that his administration will seek to “fully integrate climate change into our foreign policy and national security strategies, as well as our approach to trade.”
Australia will likely find itself in the crosshairs of trade reform that could see carbon adjustment fees or quotas added to trading partners who are “failing to meet their climate and environmental obligations.”
In September last year, incoming U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that a Biden administration would have a “very aggressive plan to move on this internationally,” one focused on “working to get our allies, partners and others to raise their ambitions.”
When Biden appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as the special presidential envoy for climate, Kerry also became the first person solely focused on climate on the National Security Council, demonstrating the elevated status of climate change policy under the new administration. Climate change will be considered beyond the traditional realms of energy and the environment, becoming instead central to national security of the United States and its broader geopolitical strategy.
As a result, Australia stands to be further marginalized on the international stage on climate change, at the cost of the effectiveness of its foreign policy. While the Morrison government would be quick to rebuke commentary about failing to meet targets, internationally and domestically, the government’s policies are seldomly heralded for their boldness or championed for their vision.
It is well acknowledged that numerous Australian prime ministers have been felled over the past decade, in part due to their climate change and energy policies. Stemming from a fear of again unleashing Australia’s political kraken, the current government has been hesitant to commit to any significant policy changes that could undermine their hold on power.
However, Australia’s climate policy settings have also played straight into the hands of those who wish to challenge its foreign policy. Beijing has previously referred to Australia as operating as a “condescending master” and “insulting” climate-vulnerable nations.
More recently, though played down by Morrison, being snubbed for a speaking slot at the U.N. Climate Ambition Summit left a sour taste in the mouth of many in government.
As it already has, Australia will also find its reputation harmed closer to home. Pacific island countries have long criticized Australia’s nonchalant attitude toward climate change, and the sometimes tone-deaf approach of some parliamentarians.
The Coalition government has left Australia firmly contrasted with allies of all sizes and the ambitions and targets set by many of them – including with the Conservative-led government in the United Kingdom.
The fear of internal political blowback acts as a handbrake on any immediate policy changes. Consecutive electoral victories by the Coalition has also created a level of political hubris that denies the reality that a majority of Australians want more sensible climate change action.
With Biden’s victory, the growing cost of sub-standard climate policies on Australia’s international standing and foreign policy effectiveness may well see the benefits of any domestic political gains start to be outweighed.
Philip Citowicki is a foreign policy commentator and was an advisor to former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.