On 11 November, Joe Biden received congratulatory phone calls from Scott Morrison and Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga. The office of the president-elect published brief summaries, readouts, of the calls.
This is diplomacy at its most conventional. But a friend of mine in Washington picked up a not-so-subtle difference in the two readouts.
Biden was described as discussing with Suga “their shared commitment to tackle climate change”, among other matters. On the other hand the president-elect simply looked forward to working closely with Morrison “on many common challenges” which included, among other things, “confronting climate change”.
The truth is that Morrison cannot truthfully be described as “sharing” Biden’s “commitment to tackle climate change”.
Biden is committed to America achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Morrison has rejected that target.
Biden’s official climate policy states he is committed to “getting every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets”. Morrison has denounced as reckless any change in our current 2030 target.
Biden has committed to “fully integrate climate change into our foreign policy and national security strategies, as well as our approach to trade … and use every tool of American foreign policy to push the rest of the world to raise their ambitions alongside the United States”.
With the United States incorporating climate goals into trade policy and the European Union doing the same, how do we resist faster action to reduce emissions? Do we want to be out of step with everyone on climate, except perhaps Saudi Arabia and Russia?
It was with considerable difficulty that I managed to persuade Donald Trump not to impose tariffs on Australian – and high emission – steel or aluminium. You can imagine the glee with which American steel and aluminium makers would welcome tariffs on imports from nations that did not share, for example, America’s 2050 goal of net zero emissions.
And for those who think our great and powerful friends in Washington would not impose political tariffs on imports from Australia, read my book. It was very, very close run.
After all, Biden has appointed John Kerry as his special presidential envoy for climate. Kerry signed the Paris agreement in 2015 when he was Barack Obama’s secretary of state. He has launched a bipartisan campaign to reach net zero by 2050. He is a passionate advocate of global action to rapidly reduce emissions and he is determined, as is Biden, to use every lever the US can bring to bear to achieve it.
It is hard to believe that an Australian government would choose to be out of step with the US on a vital national security issue, but right now our national climate policy is not just at odds with that of the incoming US administration, but also with our close friends in the UK and Europe, not to speak of our major trading partners in Japan, South Korea and China.
Ironically, any of the Australian states would be seen as more in line with Biden than our national government. New South Wales’s Liberal energy minister Matt Kean is on the same wavelength as Biden and Kerry with a legislated renewable energy plan and a 2050 net zero target.
Next year at the Glasgow climate conference, Australia will be urged by the US and others to raise our ambition and nominate a higher target for 2030 – which would be readily attainable.
All of this suggests Morrison should as soon as possible adopt a net zero 2050 target and at the same time carefully consider a higher emissions reduction target for 2030. This would not only bring the federal government in line with our major allies and trading partners, but also bring it in line with state and territory governments in Australia, not to speak of our business sector.
Morrison knows that a higher 2030 target is achievable and a net zero target for 2050 is as well. It all depends on how quickly the old coal-fired power stations are closed and every indication is that they will shut down earlier than currently anticipated. We are in a sweet spot where more renewables are delivering lower emissions and lower prices.
So the only obstacle is politics – the wretched impasse that has dogged Coalition politics for more than a decade where global warming is treated by the right wing and its friends in the (mostly Murdoch) media as an ideological values issue rather than as a simple matter of physics.
So long as that alliance of rightwing populists, rightwing media and the fossil fuel sector stick together it will be hard for Morrison to move without stirring up dissent on his backbench. But with the end of the pandemic in sight, public concern about climate action will revive.
Politics is a numbers game. There are 151 seats in the House of Representatives. The Coalition holds 77 of them – a bare majority after appointing a Speaker. There are three seats that were formerly rock-solid safe Liberal strongholds; Mayo, Indi and Warringah. All are presently held by small “l” liberal women who campaigned for stronger climate action. A fourth, Wentworth, was only narrowly regained from another independent woman in 2019.
Rebekha Sharkie (Mayo) and Helen Haines (Indi) will almost certainly hold their seats, and while Zali Steggall’s election in Warringah was very much an anti-Abbott vote, she has built a strong profile locally and nationally and will not be easy to unseat at the next election. Climate-conscious independents are targeting more Coalition seats, with community groups forming well in advance of a coming election. Indi and Warringah are not “special cases” but templates for further change if the Coalition cannot deliver on climate.
Clean energy will not only help save the planet, it will provide the cheap and abundant energy that will create new jobs to replace those lost as coal and gas decline and expire.
Without a plan for a post-coal Australia, the Coalition may find its majority lost, not to Labor, but to progressive independents in what used to be Liberal heartland.