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Is Australia’s nuclear submarine deal a distraction from international climate action?


Climate warming and environmental degradation are damaging humanity each and every day and all the decisions we make must be questioned for their human health and survival implications.

The fundamental issue at the UN climate conference COP26 is not the distant target of zero emissions by 2050 but the need to focus on the huge task of delivering emission reductions of 45 percent or more by 2030 to limit a temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Currently, the contribution of nations in the Paris Agreement will lead to an emissions rise of 16 percent and a 2.7 degree Celsius rise. 

Australia and indeed some other countries must ask themselves if nuclear submarines will be relevant to their likely plight in 2050 or whether the $90 billion (AUD) should be a small down payment on the huge ongoing costs of survival from the predicted climatic ravages which have already commenced worldwide. 

In 2050, conflicts will likely be within countries and between close neighbours over resources such as water and productive land — not based on nuclear threat. Defense services including those of the United States and China will be engulfed in saving lives and infrastructure from fire, flood, storm and drought.

Such conflicts are already with us and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has cited war in Syria, Mali, Yemen, South Sudan and Ethiopia due to water shortages.

Currently, Australia spends $45 billion (AUD) or 2.1 percent of GDP on defense. It has spent $130 billion on the economic recovery from COVID-19 much by increasing gas mining for export, but less than 2 percent of which has been spent on solutions to reduce emissions and even less on climate adaptation. Indeed, Australia does not have a national coordinated national adaptation policy. 

The relevant questions are whether the defesnse agreement between the U.S., UK and Australia to provide nuclear submarines, dubbed AUKUS, has encouraged or coerced Australia to accept and deliver even a 2050 emission target —and how Australia can now cooperate on emission reduction within the Asian Pacific region and particularly the Pacific Island States.

Impact on Australian climate policy

The AUKUS agreement has already resulted in the re-examination of climate policy but discussion has  been distracted by worries about AUKUS compromising our sovereignty in the event of armed conflict — and by the diplomatic failure to discuss the issue with Pacific neighbours. There are also concerns about the weakness of U.S. democracy and the possible irrationalities of any future president that could lead to Australian involvement in unnecessary conflict.

However, the main focus of Australia’s government has remained on the continuing mining and export of fossil fuels (for reasons I’ve detailed in The Hill previously). Even while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in Washington his government was attempting to persuade the Australian States to adopt a “Coalkeeper” policy that seemingly would continue to protect the fossil fuel industry and constrain new renewable energy projects.

No wonder many Australian eyebrows were raised when U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hailed Australia as a global leader on climate change.

Currently, Australia is ranked 15 highest of 90 countries for domestic emissions and fifth or sixth if exports of fossil fuels are included. Clearly, Australia is the world’s laggard when the country has the wealth and expertise to take action.

One positive has arisen from Australia’s shameful diplomatic treatment of France,  whose earlier defense deal with Australia was abruptly canceled and replaced with AUKUS. There will now be much greater scrutiny of the proposed Australia-EU trade deal to ensure Australia complies with climate and environmental needs, as well as with means to assess compliance.  Such pressure on Australia’s trading future is already having an impact on policy.

Impact on Australia’s Pacific policy

Trust and cooperation between Australia and France are essential for the needs of the Pacific Island nations. It had been expected that the French through their Pacific territories and commitment to climate change would encourage Australia to recognize its responsibilities.

Over many years, Australia has continued to dismiss the pleas of the islands for a climate policy that would help them avoid inundation. At the time of the 2019 Pacific Island Forum in low-lying Tuvalu, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack infamously said that Pacific island nations affected by the climate crisis will continue to survive “because many of their workers come here to pick our fruit.”

This dismissal contrasts with the forum’s persistent support from the UN as evidenced in António Guterres’s speech at a virtual meeting with the forum leaders as part of the recent UN general assembly in New York.

“Your nations are confronting a dual crisis of climate change and the COVID‑19 pandemic. Both threaten Pacific lives and livelihoods,” Guterres’s said.

These threats include the loss of entire countries to sea-level rise.

Recently, Vanuatu has asked the International Court of Justice for an opinion on the right of present and future generations to be protected from climate change.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that Australia’s indifference over a number of years has led to many Pacific Island Nations accepting development aid from China. Currently, these nations are concerned about possible militarization in the Pacific and as yet have not been consulted by Australia.

Even more shaming is Australian indifference to the needs of the Torres Strait Islanders who are the Indigenous peoples of this Australian territory. They have claimed before the UN Human Rights Committee that Australian inaction infringes their human rights. Australia has opposed their claim.

Through AUKUS, the U.S. is now in a position to encourage Australia to change its attitudes. In a crucial announcement that brought a response from China to stop funding coal fired power in other countries, President Biden announced the U.S. will become the world’s leading provider of climate finance with $11 billion to “help developing nations tackle the climate crisis.”

Australia already provides some aid for adaptation in the Islands but the U.S. could begin with an allocation of aid based on cultural knowledge and values. The most important U.S. action would remain the pressure to reduce Australian emissions.

Many countries including Australia have not yet accepted the simple truth that any increase in emissions made by any nation equally affects every other nation. As never before in human history we sink or swim together. It is vital that this simple principle is part of the COP26 concluding statement and that each country commits to this understanding.

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 Antony Blinken AUKUS Australia carbon emissions climate action David Shearman Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Nuclear Submarines

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