No Place To Hide: Why the Biden Administration Will Force a Climate Rethink in Australia
Democratic nominee Joe Biden campaigned on large-scale climate reform during the 2020 US Presidential Election. Since his inauguration, President Biden has wasted no time in pushing for action on climate change, both domestically and internationally. During his first week in office, Biden signed executive orders reversing many of the Trump administration’s anti-environmental policies, cancelled the Keystone Pipeline permit, and rejoined the global UNFCCC Paris Agreement on climate change.
Of particular importance to Australia is Biden’s ‘Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad’. This executive order recognises the profound climate crisis facing the world and emphasises the narrow window states have to take action in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The Biden administration’s decision to position the climate crisis at the centre of US foreign policy and national security has renewed pressure on the Morrison government to commit to net zero emissions by 2050.
Speaking at the 2021 World Economic Forum in Davos, John Kerry, the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, cited the 2019/20 Australian bushfire crisis as evidence of the costs of climate change - loss of human life, the widespread destruction of infrastructure, and accelerating species extinction. In Kerry’s words, the war on climate change has already started, and the world “cannot afford to lose any longer”. Accordingly, Kerry indicated to the Morrison government that the US is acutely aware of Australia’s climate concerns and will likely be monitoring any subsequent climate action. Later in the week, Kerry stated that he would be pushing the world’s largest emitters to commit to more ambitious emissions cuts.
With the Trump era over, Australia will no longer be able to hide behind US climate inaction. Currently, Australia is one of the world’s biggest CO2 emitters per capita and was recently ranked the eighth worst-performing country on the 2021 Climate Change Performance Index. Throughout Trump’s presidency, the advancement of anti-environmental policies drew attention away from Australia’s weak climate ambitions. Examples of these policies included withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement, replacing the US Clean Power Plan, and approving various fossil fuel infrastructure projects (notably the Keystone XL pipeline and Dakota Access pipeline). However, with Trump out of office and the Biden Administration committing strongly to tackling climate change, Australia will have no ally to hide behind at the COP26 conference this November if it tries to avoid a commitment to more ambitious climate targets.
The pressure on Australia is clearly mounting. Professor Peter Christoff notes that with the U.S. and China committing to more ambitious climate policies, Australia is at risk of becoming even more of a “visible laggard” on the international stage. This could further harm Australia’s already strained diplomatic relations with climate-affected nations in the South-Pacific.
There has also been speculation that the Biden Administration may apply bilateral diplomatic pressure to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, asking him why no serious emissions reduction targets have been established despite the Coalition’s seven years in office. Additionally, Biden may take a hard power approach to encourage Australia to take climate action. The President has publicly stated his support for a ‘carbon adjustment fee’ on imports from countries that fail to meet their 2015 Paris Agreement emissions obligations. Under Australia’s current trajectory, domestic companies exporting to the US may face harsher tariffs on carbon-intensive goods.
The shift in the global climate landscape is not only obvious through Biden’s domestic actions, but also in his pledge to host a Leaders’ Climate Summit aimed at raising global climate ambition and encouraging positive contributions to the COP26 and beyond. This summit will be an indication of how exactly Biden intends to exert his international influence in the climate arena.
Despite criticism of its environmental record, there seems to have been a shift in the Morrison government’s language and attitudes towards climate change. The Prime Minister has acknowledged the need to work towards a net zero emissions future and stated that “our goal is to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050.” Although he fell short of actually committing to a net zero emissions target, the public articulation of this goal is a positive indication of progress. In addition to environmental gains, enthusiastic cooperation with the Biden administration could help Australia overcome negative perceptions of the Morrison government’s close relationship with former U.S. President, Donald Trump. Furthermore, with Pacific Island leaders stating that climate change is a key concern for their nations, the demonstration of a greater willingness by Australia to act on climate change has the potential to boost its regional standing.
Ultimately, although there are significant differences between the Australian and American approaches to climate change, it is not an issue that is likely to cause a split in the longstanding alliance. In fact, Prime Minister Morrison has already pledged to work closely with President Biden on key issues such as reducing emissions towards net zero. However, as pressure mounts on Australia to increase its emissions targets, it is clearer than ever that Morrison can no longer afford to be indifferent to the challenges posed by climate change.
Meg Somers is a final year Bachelor of International Studies (Global Security) student at RMIT University. She is currently volunteering with Educating The Future, an NGO working to improve access to education in Timor-Leste, and hopes to pursue a career in foreign policy. Her academic interests include climate security and gender equality.