Australia the Go-Between


Forget acting on global warming for our children’s sake. Nobel laureate Al Gore brought home the immediacy of what we face during his ‘Earth and Venus’ speech at the Bali Climate Change Conference last week. The onetime US Vice President warned that the complete disappearance of Arctic summer ice was now expected not around 2030, as thought before, but as reckoned by the most recent scientific study, could be expected by 2013. It was time to strip away disguises.

Each month, the science gets tighter, the deadlines closer. The level of urgency at Bali, short of any that has dealt with the imminence of war, seems unparalleled, evidenced in the backroom and podium dramas of the final days, indeed in the extension of the conference by a further 24 hours, so that an international plan for the next two years of action on carbon emissions could be agreed upon.

All eyes were on the world’s worst polluter and largest economy, because so much would be achieved on climate change through US leadership, and so much damage would be done through its lack of cooperation or state of denial.

At home, a lame duck President chose denial, while at the conference chief delegate Paula Dobriansky sipped on Diet Coke, offered aspartame promises, and as the world got close to climate crunch, chose not to cooperate. The grumbles and boos from the room made it apparent that the US was now alone, no longer supported by Canada – their recent champion – Japan or Russia.

But grumbles never changed a delegation with marching orders. Then up piped Australia’s nearest neighbour. It was Kevin Conrad, envoy for Papua New Guinea, breaking all the rules of diplomacy, as many did at this conference, by speaking the heartfelt truth. ‘If you’re not willing to lead, please: get out of the way,’ he said. And it seemed to make a difference. The US was in.

But the US was in what, exactly? On paper, the withering concession was to lose mention of the 25-40 percent emission reductions minimally needed by 2020, if we are to keep temperature increases to no more than two degrees Celsius. The US has won again, not joining something until it is not worth joining.

But the process has started. The Bali agreement allows for action to slow deforestation, offers developing nations assistance in mitigation and adaptation, helps them acquire cleaner technology (albeit criticised by some as an encouragement to pollute in the first place), and contains a requirement that developing countries monitor carbon emissions according to internationally agreed standards.

After the Bali Conference rose, the Kyoto Club met the next day – sans US but now with Australia present – and straightforwardly embraced the 25-40 per cent emission reduction as a guide to the reductions needed. The whole world knows what needs to be done, and Australia is nodding, even if the US doesn’t like it.

(No one’s mentioned it, but as the science gets more serious each month, it could be the case that by Copenhagen, in December 2009, we might have to adjust this 25-40 per cent figure upward any case.)

What of Australia? There is our welcome Kyoto ratification, serving both our national dignity and obligation to the world, and engineering the tender removal of a fig leaf from what has always been crass and myopic US self-interest to pollute at will.

Beyond that, the new Labor Government has shown that Australia as a middle power can play a progressive role of go-between. Word has it that Climate Change Minister Penny Wong made astute contribution to negotiations, and it seems Rudd genuinely wants to do something. ‘There is no Plan B,’ as he says.

Yet this is dulled somewhat by Rudd’s hesitation to agree to targets until the Garnaut report comes out in mid-2008. A closer look at Garnaut’s brief shows that it examines in part the best way to load share responsibilities between countries of the world. Maybe, possibly, there is some benefit in waiting, not for any science – for that is well-established – but for some understanding of what mechanisms will deliver what targets for whom. For the first time in 11 years it could be reasonable to give an Australian PM the benefit of the doubt, just this once. We’ll certainly know by the climate conference in Poland, 12 months from now.

Bali was always about establishing a framework for an international treaty after Kyoto expires in 2012. Normally these things are glacial, but considering the glaciers of the world are in dramatic retreat, we must search for new metaphors, and note that it’s all a work in progress with the emphasis on work – and progress.

The science is still coming in. Yesterday, a new scientific study announced that sea level rises are likely to be twice as high as previously expected. Try imagining the impact of a 1.6 metre rise at the Gold Coast, at Weipa or Lakes Entrance, at Saint Kilda, at Glenelg or Fremantle, on the Coorong, add a storm surge or extreme weather event or two, and it’s clear these are times for straight talking and generous action.

Whatever the paper outcomes, Bali normalised the reality of climate change science; and it pervaded notions that deep cuts in emissions need to be made because of that science, no matter the levels of psychological reluctance to act, and whatever the economics. It showed a world engaged, if somewhat distracted by denial in important places.

By the time the world gathers again in two years, at Copenhagen in December 2009, when it counts the most, there will be a new US President. Trust, courage, and a good pair of wellies is all we otherwise need.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.