Polly Hemming
Australia’s compromised climate negotiators

Sitting in a bar in Manhattan recently, there for Climate Week NYC and the United Nations Climate Ambition Summit, I watched as Australians from both government and the private sector worked the room. I’d been told our negotiators had a reputation for being charming and likeable, that they’re easy to get along with and a lot of fun.

I must admit, if I wasn’t aware of what the people in this room had done to slow action on climate change, I would also think they were good company. Yet the same people drinking and smiling with colleagues from abroad have been directly involved in gaming, obstructing and undermining international climate agreements, as have many of their predecessors.

When I raised this with a former UN negotiator, generally full of praise for Australians, they laughed uncomfortably and admitted that often, when dealing with the Australian government, “it’s not until it’s too late that you realise they’ve totally fucked you over”.

Behind the apparently loveable and unassuming facade, Australia, as a nation state, is very sophisticated at a few things. Protecting our gas and coal industry is one of them. Our climate policies are all designed to protect fossil fuels – whether rebranding as a renewable energy superpower or feigning ambition through an increased climate target or a thriving carbon offset industry.

Offshore, Australia’s diplomacy and foreign policy is designed to either secure ongoing markets for our gas and coal or to obstruct the climate ambition of others so those markets are not undermined. Official forums, whether at the United Nations, the Pacific Islands Forum or the G20, are used to ensure nothing gets in the way of these plans.

It’s a strategy that has worked well.

In the 1990s, for example, Australian negotiators lobbied aggressively and successfully for measures under the Kyoto Protocol that would allow Australia to increase its emissions. They also fought for what is now known as the “Australia clause”, a loophole allowing Australia to claim emissions reductions that had occurred before the agreement was even signed.

It is reported that Australia was still fighting for this clause long after the talks should have ended. Apparently the translators had already left and the cleaners had arrived to prepare for the next sessions.

It’s unclear how Australia retains its loveable reputation given these apparently bruising negotiations laid the foundation for the Australian government to essentially lie about Australia’s climate achievements right up to the present day.

While the UN Climate Ambition Summit is not a vehicle for formal negotiations, it plays an important role in preceding such talks. The aim of the summit this year was to accelerate and showcase climate ambition by nation states and corporations prior to COP28 in December.

Australia was there, playbook in hand.

The international community is not entirely blind to Australia’s tactics. We were denied a speaking spot in the keynote session of the summit, which was reserved only for countries that could demonstrate overarching leadership and credible action in response to the climate crisis.

However, later in the day, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong announced a “long term adaptation plan” in partnership with the small island nation of Tuvalu. The details were vague: more of an expression of intent to plan for a partnership than anything, and there was certainly no dollar figure attached.

The announcement was significant, not because it contained anything meaningful or signalled a change in behaviour, but because it was another skilful demonstration of the sleights of hand our government performs on the international stage.

Australia makes an effort to have a presence at events such as the ambition summit. It does so to ensure it can control the narrative. When the Australian government participates in a session about “climate adaptation”, for instance, it can avoid talking about the cause of climate change and the fact that its policies are directly contributing to it.

Shortly after the 2022 federal election, Wong addressed the Pacific Islands Forum secretariat and promised Pacific leaders that, on climate change, Australia would “stand shoulder to shoulder with our Pacific family in response to this crisis”. The wording of this pledge was subtly but significantly changed at the summit to “Australia will stand shoulder to shoulder with countries in the Pacific region to build resilience to climate change”. In other words, “We’re not going to stop the thing driving up sea levels, temperatures and exacerbating disasters and food shortages, but we’ll help you live with the damage we’re doing.”

Australia gives more in aid to the fossil fuel industry than it does to the Pacific region. The Australian government’s resources and energy major projects database lists more than 100 new fossil fuel projects in various stages of approval and development. New gas basins are being cracked open with the intention of producing and exporting gas for decades to come. New coalmines are being approved to run into the middle of this century.

In the same week that Wong and her delegation were promoting Australia’s climate “ambition” in New York, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek was in the Federal Court, accompanied by two coal companies, defending the government’s right to ignore the link between climate change and fossil fuels when approving new mines.

To be clear, financing and supporting climate adaptation is critical, particularly for Pacific countries. As former president of Kiribati Anote Tong said, “Half a degree of warming may seem trifling, but for my country … these fractional figures are a matter of life and death.”

At 1.2 degrees of global temperature rise, the ocean is consuming communities across the Pacific and Torres Strait, while others are being hit by cyclones and various hazards. Money, infrastructure, services and new ideas – lots of them – are needed to save the people who have contributed the very least to the climate crisis but are among those suffering the most.

High-emitting countries such as Australia owe a debt to the countries that will bear the worst impacts of climate change, especially when our government fully intends to keep contributing to the problem.

It’s likely no accident that the Australian government partnered with Tuvalu on its adaptation partnership. A chain of low-lying atolls in the Pacific Ocean, Tuvalu’s highest point is only about 4.5 metres above sea level. Sitting next to Wong, the finance minister of Tuvalu, Seve Paeniu, said 40 per cent of Funafuti, the country’s main island, was already entirely submerged during king tides.

For context, analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests sea levels could increase by more than a metre by 2100 if emissions continue to increase. The people of Tuvalu need help and they need it now.

The Tuvalu government has been one of the most vigorous campaigners for climate action in the Pacific region, as well as a critic of Australia’s fossil fuel expansion. Minister Paeniu has previously observed that the Australian government says “all the correct words in terms of the need to address climate change and the priority accorded to it” but shows a corresponding “lack of initiative … to address the course of climate change in terms of fossil fuel”.

Wong has visited every country in the Pacific Islands Forum since the 2022 election. The Australian government has had more than a year to demonstrate action on climate and to provide increased climate support for Pacific countries. Instead it has focused on measures that arguably benefit Australia far more than the Pacific: strengthening security and defence in the region, a temporary visa scheme and a bid to host a UN climate conference in partnership with Pacific countries.

Australia’s adaptation announcement makes for good publicity. It may also serve the dual purpose of winning over one of the more outspoken members of its so-called “Pacific family”. Indeed, Minister Paeniu, sitting close to Wong, avoided any strong condemnation of Australia’s fossil fuel expansion, instead conceding that while he would continue to advocate for emissions reduction, his country was “under such urgent threat that we must now turn to adaptation”.

In this context, a vague announcement a few months before COP28 seems little more than a cynical exercise designed to distract the international community from the fact that, behind the smiles and charm, Australia is, and always has been, a petrostate and a bad-faith actor.

It worked, too. Australia was somehow commended on its climate leadership. In a press release the UN praised Australia’s announcement for exemplifying “first movers and doers”.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, opened the Climate Ambition Summit by saying “humanity has opened the gates to hell”. Events over the past week appear to confirm this. Since the summit, New York itself has been hit by flash flooding. Elsewhere, floods have killed 11 people in South Africa, record temperatures in the Amazon have triggered the mass death of dolphins and in Australia bushfires are already ripping through New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria.

If humanity has opened the gates of hell, then the Australian government, with its spin, obfuscation and protection of the fossil fuel industry, seems determined to help drive us through them.

Like the UN negotiators, it won’t be until it’s too late that we realise they’ve totally fucked us over. It’s unlikely we’ll be laughing about it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "Meet the climate hustlers".

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