It was beyond belief to watch on at COP25 in Madrid as Australia used process to torpedo progress, while simultaneously images of climate-fuelled bushfires and smoke haze engulfing our most well-known city filtered through the international press.
By speaking powerfully about climate impacts at home, Australia could have lifted ambition at the COP. This is not just a case of wishful thinking, I know because I’ve seen it happen before.
Back in 2013 at the COP in Warsaw, I was negotiating for the Australian Government on the costs of loss and damage from climate change.
The issue often finds countries at loggerheads. Developing countries struggle to cover the mounting costs of climate impacts, because single impacts can potentially cost more over time than their annual GDP, while developed countries refuse to concede any liability, for fear it implies compensation.
Sitting across from me at the negotiating table was Naderev Sano, from the Philippines Climate Change Commission. Super Typhoon Haiyan had just demolished parts of the Philippines, with winds around 315km per hour and a death toll of almost 2000 people.
So moved by the damage and despair faced by his people, he found a way to communicate it to even the impervious, snail-paced UN process essential to minimise further damage and despair.
“What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness,” he said. “Mr. President, we can stop this madness, right here in Warsaw.”
Sanos didn’t whinge that the Philippines is only 0.4% of global emissions. His conviction empowered him to represent the Phillipines’ interests through any means necessary. He called for all nations to do their part, including providing financial support where possible.
Now faced with our own unprecedented climate-fuelled disaster, here was Australia’s opportunity to push for greater global action.
Everyone I spoke to – no matter their nationality, or whether they were security staff or senior climate negotiators – knew straight away about the fires currently raging in Australia and apocalyptic images of Sydney choking with smoke.
The COP audience was primed. The moment was right.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been clear that climate change is a global problem. He could find no better place than the Madrid COP to tell other countries to step up, but he couldn’t even be bothered to go.
He could have used Australia’s unprecedented bushfires crisis to lobby for more urgent global action and greater global ambition with the moral authority of the world’s largest volunteer firefighting force behind him. Instead the PM sent Angus Taylor to lobby for a loophole so Australia can pollute more.
Minister Taylor’s National Statement did not even mention the bushfires. Not once.
These kind of multi-lateral negotiations are difficult. Negotiators grind out consensus decisions that must pander to the least ambitious denomination.
The problem is Australia didn’t just go with less ambition, the problem is Australia’s ambition was to seek accounting loopholes that deliberately and actively wrecked the key decisions necessary to implement the Paris Agreement, including on building new carbon markets.
The Prime Minister is correct to say climate change is a global problem that Australia can’t solve on its own. It is absolutely in Australia’s interests for the Paris Agreement to work and for other countries do more, but if we are successful in getting the ‘carryover credit’ loophole approved, or stopping it from being prohibited, we’ll not only be shooting ourselves in the foot but helping other countries to do the same.
Swedish student activist Greta Thunberg called out countries like Australia in her own address to the Madrid COP, shaming them for seeking to use such loopholes rather than tackle climate change in any real and tangible way.
It is no wonder Australia was awarded ‘Fossil of the Day’ five times over the COP — more than any other country. Australia’s shameful climate actions at home and at the COP have turned it into a climate pariah.
Normally when Ministers return from these kinds of meetings they crow about their successes, but the PM and Minister Taylor have been strategically silent – perhaps they are hoping that voters concerns about climate change will blow over in the same way residents of Sydney are hoping for a wind change.
There’s a golden rule in politics that you should never waste a crisis. Just like I saw the Philippines stand tall in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan, the Australian Prime Minister owed it to all Australians to seize this moment, but he squandered it.
Never mind, the next climate conference in Glasgow in November 2020 will be smack bang in the middle of Australia’s now extended bushfire season so he may get another opportunity, provided there’s anything left to burn by the end of summer.
The Prime Minister will get another opportunity, during the next climate conference in Glasgow in November 2020, which again will be smack bang in the middle of Australia’s now extended bushfire season.
Will the Prime Minister join the growing global coalition to close the loophole and raise ambition, or will he once again block agreement and leave the bushfires to speak for Australia?
Richie Merzian is Climate & Energy Program Director at independent think-tank the Australia Institute. Richie is a former Australian Government negotiator to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and helped coordinate the Green Climate Fund Board during Australia’s tenure as Chair. @RichieMerzian.