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Morrison’s New York Climate No-Show

18 Sep 2019
By Associate Professor Matt McDonald
Scomo saurus at a climate protest in Melbourne. Twitter: Lynn Frankes.

Despite being in the United States, Prime Minister Scott Morrison won’t be going to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York next week. Is it a case of “too soon after Tuvalu”?

Next week, New York will host a Climate Action Summit involving leaders from around the world. The summit provides an opportunity for states to outline progress towards meeting their national targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and ideally to increase these targets. Indeed the stated goal of the meeting is to “boost ambition and accelerate actions to implement the Paris Agreement.”

These summits are a crucial component of the Paris Agreement, itself still the cornerstone of international climate cooperation. As part of the commitment to avoiding another “Copenhagen” failure, Paris organizers opted to create an agreement in which universal buy-in was secured on the basis that states could make their own “intended nationally determined contributions” at the outset. The idea was that these commitments would be “ratcheted up” over time. So it’s an important meeting, and plenty of the world’s leaders will be there.

But one world leader who won’t be is Australia’s Scott Morrison. This is despite the fact that he’ll be in the US at the time, and will be attending a summit at the UN in New York only a week later. His office has issued statements noting that other Ministers will be attending, but given the importance of this meeting and the presence of dozens of other world leaders, it appears a significant snub.

So what explains this position?

If it was good enough for others…

There’s a precedent for PM non-attendance at climate discussions, of course, especially for conservative governments. Tony Abbott didn’t even send a minister to the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties meeting in Poland in 2013, the first held during his Government’s time in office. And in 1997 John Howard left his Environment Minister, Robert Hill, to negotiate the terms of Australia’s participation in the Kyoto Protocol.

But for a prime minister in the same country at the same time, it’s a bit harder to explain this away…

If you can walk, you can talk

Part of the story is possibly the structure of the talks themselves. Speaking slots have been reserved for those countries outlining a new national mitigation target or new financial commitments to the Green Climate Fund.

Scott Morrison’s government has given no signal of a willingness to increase its mitigation commitments, which is hardly surprising given steadily rising emissions and reliance on carry-over credits from Kyoto to even come close to meeting existing Paris targets. And the Government’s preference with climate funding is to work directly with regional partners rather than through the Green Climate Fund.

All this suggests no spot at the podium for Australia.

Great and Powerful Friends?

Another view would be that US President Donald Trump’s rejection of the Paris Treaty has also played a role. Morrison can potentially claim some degree of solidarity with the President in mutual non-attendance, a shared position he might view as strengthening the alliance.

In his analysis of John Howard’s decision not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, Clive Hamilton argued in Running from the Storm that it was Howard’s absolute commitment to the US alliance – and to walking in lock-step with Washington – that best explained this decision. As Hamilton noted, Howard’s position on ratification followed George W Bush’s 2001 announcement that he would abandon participation in the Protocol.

Perhaps the desire to align with our great and powerful friend is playing a role in Morrison’s thinking too.

Morrison’s Pacific Trauma

Another important context for this decision was Morrison’s experience at last month’s Pacific Island Forum (PIF). This forum- held in Tuvalu, one of the most low-lying and climate vulnerable nations in the world- focused significantly on climate change. Unable to entertain missing that event, not least given his government’s own “Pacific Pivot,” Morrison found himself consistently challenged by regional leaders and commentators over Australia’s minimal mitigation efforts and rising emissions.

At the meeting itself, the prime minister worked hard to water down the consensus-based official PIF Communique’s position on climate change, much to the disappointment of regional leaders. As Michael O’Keefe noted, the alternative Kainaki Declaration produced by smaller Pacific countries, featuring far less equivocal language on the climate threat and imperative of a robust response to it, was an unprecedented show of dissent.

Perhaps it was simply a case of “too soon” for Morrison to face the music again after the hammering he copped in Tuvalu.

Aligning Domestic Inaction and Diplomatic “Commitments”

All this suggests it’s getting harder for Australia to square away its moribund domestic climate policy and steadily rising emissions on the one hand with the idea of a nation committed to doing its part to address this unprecedented global challenge on the other. With our climate policy settings, commitment to coal exports and emissions profile as they are, international climate talks become a site in which Australia runs a real risk of being shamed and ultimately embarrassed.

While it will be disappointing to many, in some ways – as there was with Howard and Abbott before him – Morrison’s non-attendance is consistent with his government’s domestic climate policy. Both suggest that Australia is missing in action.

The question will be whether climate mitigation inaction can be sustained without severely undermining Australia’s international reputation and key relationships, especially in our region. As the issue becomes ever more urgent, particularly for our neighbours, there’s a case to be made that climate policy is foreign policy. That certainly seemed to be the case in Tuvalu.

Perhaps more concerning for the Morrison government is the prospect that the Australian public will demand stronger climate policy. Will growing concern about climate change and growing support for strong action identified by the Lowy Polls translate into something approaching sufficient pressure on the Government to change course? If John Howard felt compelled to take a carbon pricing policy to the 2007 election, change is certainly possible. This week’s climate protests across the country might give us a further indication of just how widespread this public concern is.

Matt McDonald is an associate professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Studies.