Commentary | 25 January 2020

Soft power goes up in smoke

A unique connection to nature is at the heart of our international appeal. Foot-dragging on climate is squandering it.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

A unique connection to nature is at the heart of our international appeal. Foot-dragging on climate is squandering it.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

As we mark Australia Day amid the bushfire crisis, few can dispute that our global image has taken a hit. The Lucky Countrya label which has stuck since Donald Horne’s 1964 tome, is looking decidedly less lucky. Where once Australia existed in the popular imagination as a place of pristine natural beauty, we are now viewed as the developed nation most ravaged by climate change.

Images have been broadcast across the globe of this season’s conflagrations turning blue shimmering skies blood red, world-class beaches into evacuation zones, and eucalyptus forests into killing fields for one billion native animals. The outpouring of sympathy and international solidarity reflects the fact that, in the eyes of the world, this disaster strikes at the heart of the Australian way of life.

If Australia is now seen in a different, darker light, it is not just because of the damage done to the environment but also to our reputation as global citizens. The international media has made a link between the bushfires and our climate policy. The cat is out of the bag.

Our rancour, partisanship and short-termism on the climate crisis present growing sinkholes for our international reputation. The cost to Australia’s soft power is just beginning to materialise.

The fact is our visibility as a nation is far larger than our 1.3 per cent contribution to global greenhouse emissions. The American Dream is powered by the innovation and dynamism of Silicon Valley, the Chinese Dream by export-led growth lifting millions out of poverty. But Australians can boast of a unique relationship between their quality of life and nature. The environment goes to the heart of our global identity, self-confidence and appeal.

Our soft power helps fuel the success of our tourism industry, our agricultural exports, our foreign policy and even our demographic destiny – as we seek to attract the world’s best and brightest to immigrate to our shores. Without it, we are a small, isolated country of 25 million people. With it, we are a middle power with near superpower levels of global stardom.

The hope of many around the world is that better climate policy will arise as a phoenix from the ashes of this disaster. The government’s determination to stay its course and defend the coal industry in the face of global efforts to cut greenhouse emissions suggests otherwise.

The greatest self-deception has come in allowing ourselves to think of Australia as a spectator when in fact we are a central player in the world’s most pressing crisis. We frequently hear the argument that actions from individual countries such as ours will, on their own, make little difference to global warming.

This tactic can prevail for some time but is not strategically sustainable. Firestorms like those experienced in the summer of 2020 will not be the last. More frequent and severe climate shocks mean we can almost certainly expect losses to the economy will not be transitory but close to permanent.

If all countries that individually produced less than 2 per cent of global emissions said they were too small to do anything, a third of the world’s greenhouse emissions would go unchecked. That is why we have global agreements.

Something different has to start somewhere. The economist Ross Garnaut has compellingly laid out Australia’s potential to be an economic superpower of the future post-carbon world.

We can start by taking small but meaningful steps. Restoring international trust in Australia begins by taking our existing targets seriously. This should not be too difficult, given that our international commitments are not so terribly ambitious.

But if a country like ours, with all its compelling reasons for immediate action on climate change, is not seen to be honouring its commitments to the international community, how can we expect larger emitters such as China and India to do so?

The logic of middle power diplomacy is that it is in our self-interest to set an example of upholding a global rules-based order.

This means implementing the Paris Agreement in good faith. Watering down our pledges using carry-over credits from the Kyoto Protocol has no credibility internationally and threatens to render any new agreement on the implementation of the global climate agreement practically useless. Over time, this should also include honouring our pledge as member of the G20 to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.

Without a renewed initiative on climate change our broader diplomatic efforts will suffer too. In our near abroad, China’s strategic overtures may find greater traction among Pacific island neighbours facing rising sea levels.

Further afield, we are engaged in trade negotiations with the European Union, a bloc which accounts for a quarter of global GDP and has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier. President Emmanuel Macron of France has signalled he will push Australia to make its emissions targets enforceable as a condition for approving the trade deal.

Australia is never the dominant force on anything in the world. But we matter. The hour is late, and we’ve been dreadfully slow out of the starting gate. But the sooner we come to grips with shifting global opinion, and the challenges ahead, the better we will be able to act to secure our future.

As far as the world is concerned, we are now ground zero in the war on climate change. Never let a good crisis go to waste.