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How the US could help Australia develop climate action

getty: President Biden

There comes a time when the citizens of one country need help from another country to solve crucial problems. In the case of Australia, help is not for poverty, chaos or insurrection, it is the need to join the world in addressing the climate and environmental crisis.

Australia’s government is smitten by climate denial whereas the U.S. has emerged under President Biden to offer world leadership on climate despite resistance from the Republican Party.

The Australian government has not committed to net zero emissions by 2050 and has a meager target for 2030 target which few believe will be delivered. Mike Goldman, who is chargé d’affaires at the United States embassy in Australia, has diplomatically said that both countries need to set “more ambitious climate goals.”

Australia is wedded to coal and gas and no divorce is in sight. A recent decision on one of Australia and the world’s most important environmental assets, the Great Barrier Reef offers insight into this incestuous union.

A few days ago, the World Heritage Committee ignored the scientific assessment from UNESCO that the Reef was clearly in danger from climate change and so should be placed on the in danger list from climate change. Many scientific reports from Australia and elsewhere agree with this assessment, yet the Minister responsible flew urgently to Europe to lobby fossil fuel friends Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others on the Committee to delay the decision. It succeeded.

What were the reasons? Significant action by Australia on climate change requires fossil fuel development to stop. Furthermore, many coal and gas mines pollute river catchments which flow into the coastal waters of the reef. The government depends on the votes from these mining areas communities at the next election and promises their jobs will be maintained.

Since the G7 meeting when Biden met Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at arm’s length with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson present, Australia has indulged in a spate of announcements of new coal and gas mining which will increase domestic emissions and extend Australia’s position of world leadership in coal and gas exports. 

Three of many include:

1) An $175 million AUD government loan for Queensland coal mine was made after a similar loan for a wind farm in the same region was vetoed.

2) The $224 million AUD Beetaloo Strategic Basin Plan is to accelerate gas development to be world-class.

3) The huge Adani coal mine condemned around the world for lack of environmental regulation continues to receive infrastructure support from the government and is part of Australia’s sovereign wealth fund.

According to Bloomberg’s Climate Policy Factbook, Australian financial support for fossil fuels between 2015 and 2019 grew by 48 percent — the largest increase amongst all G20 countries.

How can the U.S. help counter our dedication to fossil fuels?

Australia espouses economic success as an absolute. The news that in addition to the European CBAM, the U.S. $3.5 trillion budget plan was likely to include a tax on imports from countries with inadequate climate change policies came as a threatening jolt to Australia. Further detail on this intent would be important even in relation to our small level of imports to the United States.

Australia is relatively isolated in its consumption of balanced news from its friends and neighbours. News Corp holds a majority of the media, strongly supports fossil fuels and government which seem intent to diminish the role of the independent national broadcaster. It is essential that open media receive articles and podcasts on climate issues from U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry and the like and all levels of your government and community.

Recently Kate Gallego, the mayor of Phoenix spoke impressively at the Cities Power Partnership National Summit and her words which were published in the Canberra Times would be endorsed by Australians. She reflected that we “share democratic values, legacies of agriculture and mining, and cultural affinities” and concluded, “Together we can forge a clean, prosperous future”.

Such interactions will be vital in all sectors of society fighting climate change. As a doctor I co-founded, Doctors for the Environment Australia, which has led health and climate change education here — but we are disconnected from impressive organizations, like the U.S.-based Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The upcoming Glasgow UN climate summit in November must have environmental information based on facts. U.S. support is vital for independent science to research this data. Australia has claimed leadership on climate change and on conserving the environment. Yet, scientific studies from international agencies attest to the fast deterioration of Australia’s environment and the Australian National University’s Environmental Explorer report the worst environmental conditions in many decades, using seven indicators: high temperatures, river flows, wetlands, soil health, vegetation condition, growth conditions and tree cover. The rating was 1 out of 10.

Australia has no equilivant of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with the scientific expertise, but it should. Our meager environmental regulations are being further reduced to ease approval of mining projects. Our society needs to learn of the American experience since Richard Nixon delivered this innovation.

The U.S. environmental justice efforts now supported by Biden’s executive order on climate change to provide infrastructure for implementation could be studied in Australia to potentially offer a just transition of jobs and climate resilience to fossil fuel polluted regions in Australia.

Recently, a class action lawsuit was brought on behalf of all Australian children, to prevent the Environment Minister from approving the Whitehaven coal mine extension project. The court found the minister owes a duty of care to Australia’s young people not to cause them physical harm in the form of personal injury from climate change. The minister is appealing the decision.

The U.S. and Australia have enormous problems in decarbonizing their economies. The Biden administration is addressing this reality, Australia is not. Currently, the important relationship between our two countries could allow the U.S. to have more influence on our government. The majority of Australians want more action on climate change.

David Shearman (AM, Ph.D., FRACP, FRCPE) is a professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide, South Australia and co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Tags Climate change climate policy David Shearman Environment EPA Global warming International IPCC Joe Biden John Kerry Kate Gallego
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