The outcome of the US election was always going to lean heavy on Australia’s climate fortunes. The linkages between the two countries are culturally inarguable; Australia has often looked to that massive, wealthy and fossil-fuel-heavy land for connections and conflict.
The situation of a centre-left US government and a conservative Australian government is not new. The Liberal party won government in 2013, and for three years, had to exist in a world where the US was helmed by Obama and the Democrats. Abbott was pestered into signing up to the Paris agreement: first bragging about it, then regretting it, and then realising that under Angus Taylor’s stewardship, the target could simply be ignored.
Abbott, never one for devious rhetorical machinations, very happily and openly declared: “I certainly thought a few months ago that the only way to break the emissions obsession was to pull out of Paris. I think that the government has lost its emissions obsession now that Angus Taylor is the energy minister so I don’t think it is now necessary … I’m not calling for us to pull out”.
While Abbott awkwardly tried to sideline climate at the 2014 G20, only to watch impotently as Obama threw it right back on there and made it the main game, Scott Morrison seems to be doing what he perceives as leaning into the change rather than fighting against the tide. “These can make massive inroads into reducing emissions not just here in Australia, taking care of our commitments, but globally as well. Australia remains firmly committed to the Paris agreement and the commitments we have made”, said current PM Scott Morrison.
His G20 remarks are filled with much of the language of the past two years. Vague, non-specific evasions paired with outright deceptions about Australia’s current climate performance blend to create a mix of dull, highly reptitive platitudes (“We’re going to meet and beat our targets”, “technology not taxes”). For the most part, the goal here isn’t to convince the average Australian that the government is acting on climate change. It is, rather, to convince them that they are free to put climate change to the back of their mind, and that it’s in everybody’s best interests if we just didn’t talk about it at all.
In my book, Windfall, I characterised this as ‘inaction by distraction‘. To some degree, it works, because the goal is purely to convince us all to tune out, and we do like tuning out. Scott Morrison was at his most frustrated, clumsy and dislikable when, during the Black Summer bushfire crisis of last summer, he was forced to talk about climate change for three straight months. He was rescued from that mire by a deadly pandemic, but his greatest fears are bubbling up once again.
What will Biden’s administration do?
All eyes have been on Joe Biden’s incoming administration in the US, gauging exactly how much pre-election promises to act strongly on climate will be adhered to. Generally, there are two possibilities.
First, that the leadership falls into a centrist, incrementalist trap that goes far too slow, centres half-measures and prioritises trying to plead with a Republican party that will never come to the table. This drove much of the Obama-era investments in fossil gas, resulting in an American electricity grid that remains incredibly emissions intensive, despite falling numbers over recent years.
The second possibility is that the Biden administration is different: that it will favour renewable energy, green jobs, community and racial-justice driven action favoured by the progressive factions of the Democrats, and groups like the Sunrise Movement and other climate activists.
Possibility #1 would be pure heaven for the Morrison government. “We produce more natural gas than ever before – and nearly everyone’s energy bill is lower because of it” could be uttered by Angus Taylor or Scott Morrison today – Barack Obama said that in 2014. However, the early signs are actually looking like possibility number two – stronger climate action, focused on justice and global leadership – seems like it might be the more likely reality; though perhaps not to the full extent that climate groups call for.
The naming of former secretary of state John Kerry as “special envoy for climate” has been welcomed by those climate groups. The Sunrise Movement’s co-founder Varshini Prakash said “I served w/ Sec Kerry this summer on the Biden-Sanders taskforce & one thing is clear: he really does care about stopping climate change. That’s something we can work with”. Kerry has led the “World War Zero” initiative, which pushes for the elevation of the climate issue into common discourse, across political spectra, across industries and across countries. It is the precise, direct, geometric opposite of Scott Morrison’s pleas to just stop talking about climate.
“We’ve got to start by saying the basic overall plan we can all agree on is we’ve got to get to net zero, low carbon, no carbon economy by 2045, 2050, or earlier. The “or earlier” is very important to that discussion, because with the right leadership, we can do this earlier. We could make that happen”, Kerry told climate newsletter Heated. It is much closer to, say, Australia’s Zali Steggall than to language of the Greens party, but that’s not the relevant point. Kerry wants everyone to be talking about climate change.
Scott Morrison’s core climate tactic – trying to encourage us all to forget about climate change by offering weak promises and ineffective policies repeated ad nauseam so as to make us plead for another topic – will not work with a Biden administration that leans towards stronger, more brazen climate action rather than centrist go-slow thinking. If you need confirmation of the nervousness about this, the Australian’s Paul Kelly has already begun the hand-wringing. “The entire progressive movement in Australia will have a rich series of messages from him with which to hound Scott Morrison”, worries Kelly.
John Kerry is no grassroots justice warrior, and that may alienate some, often with good reason. But he is very specifically the anti-Morrison. He wants to elevate climate change, increase focus on the issue across ideologies, parties, regions and countries, and he wants to put the fight back into climate. “I am heated. I think that anybody who understands the science cannot be content with where we are. And I say to people who I’m trying to enlist—you can’t retire. You can’t walk away from this fight. We’ve gotta get this done”. For an Australian prime minister focused solely on defusing and denying the challenge, this must be truly terrifying to hear.