Australia Cool To Warming

In the later stages of the application process for Australia’s foreign service, candidates are provided with an armful of documents detailing the nation’s foreign policy. Each of these documents begins with the caveat: "Although Australia is a small to medium power . . ." This refrain betrays the fact that for decades Australia has been quite happy to walk quietly into the night of international relations. In the past year, however, this shrinking violet has found itself in the unfamiliar position of being labeled a pariah.

Australia’s newfound prominence results from the fact that it is the only Western nation to voice sustained dissent to calls for a United Nations global warming treaty. Current proposals, Australia fears, could prove disastrous for the land down under.

Australia is opposed to uniform emission reduction targets because of a single number: 1.4. This is the percentage of global carbon dioxide emissions for which Australia is responsible. Thus, imposing the most draconian carbon-withdrawal program in Australia would be meaningless on a global scale, yet it would cause devastating economic impacts because Australia’s economy is heavily dependent upon fossil fuels and industries, such as mining, that would be hit hard by a treaty. Australia would prefer a policy of differentiation, whereby different nations with different circumstances have different targets. A treaty mandating uniform reductions, Australia implies, would be worse than no treaty at all.

Early on, CEI recognized the strategic importance of Australia in the climate change gambit. Paul O’Sullivan, deputy chief of mission for the Australian embassy, addressed CEI’s conference on climate change in July, as did Dr. Brian Fisher of the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE). CEI also assisted the Frontiers of Freedom Institute with their climate change conference in Canberra.

On October 22, CEI hosted Dr. Fisher at a luncheon for economic attaches to embassies of developing countries which might prefer differentiation to uniform reduction targets. The objective of this meeting was to bring the economic from most guests.

Despite this goodwill, the hopes pinned on developing countries coming out against Kyoto were dashed two weeks later at a meeting in Bonn. The Chinese-led G77 demanded that industrialized nations reduce carbon emissions by a whopping 35 percent below 1990 levels, and provide foreign aid to compensate the third world for resulting environmental and economic damage. Both Japan and Norway, which also had been sympathetic to Australia’s position, caved in to the push for uniform targets as well.

Although the official Australian position accepts the scientific basis of the global warming threat, Prime Minister John Howard has expressed doubts. Moreover, reports indicate that the Australians have seriously considered not signing whatever agreement emerges from Kyoto.

On the other hand, the issue has become partisan, and Australian politicians would like to lure the green vote. Moreover, the international environmental community is waging a full-court press. Having traditionally been acquiescent and sensitive to international criticism, Australia may have difficulty withstanding the sort of treatment the US has received for failing to endorse draconian emission cuts. If Australia sticks to its gun, there might not be a Kyoto treaty after all.

Hugh Morley ([email protected]), an Australian national, is a research fellow at CEI.