DAVID SHEARMAN. Climate change diplomacy, one big step for humanity

Sep 23, 2019

As fire, flood and drought ravage swathes of the Earth, communities around the world are realising that climate change is accelerating and climate emergencies are declared. Many governments fail to act and quibble about fulfilling the meagre responsibilities of the Paris agreement. Some others seek to pressure the recalcitrants. This might be called climate “diplomacy” but it could include the twisting of arms if necessary.

The principle is illustrated by statements from two leaders.

During PM Scott Morrison’s Pacific visit, Fiji’s PM Frank Bainimarama said: “We cannot imagine how the interests of any single industry (coal in Australia) can be placed above the welfare of Pacific peoples — vulnerable people in the world over.”

In response to the fires in the Amazon President Emmanuel Macron said: “The Amazon forest is a subject for the whole planet. We can help you reforest. We can find the means for your economic development that respects the natural balance. But we cannot allow you to destroy everything.”

Both Brazil and Australia are participating in this destruction to the detriment of others and there are implications for world governance which is presently disintegrating.

In August there were about 40,000 fires in the Amazon caused by a drying climate, dismantling of environmental regulation and the Brazilian government’s permissiveness on forest clearing for cattle. The world’s emissions will rise and important biodiversity will be lost.

Australia also has a deplorable record on land clearing for cattle farming and developments which is frequently hidden from official statistics. A report from the Berlin based Climate Analytics on Australia’s global fossil fuel carbon footprint indicates that our domestic and export fossil fuel emissions are 5% of global emissions and current coal, gas and oil developments could increase this to 12-17% by 2030.

In the midst of international misdemeanour here is one glimmer of good news, the emergence of important climate diplomacy. To date climate diplomacy is built primarily into German and French foreign policy and is pursued by the European Community.

Speaking of Brazil, President Macron said “Our house is burning” and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel added that this is an “Acute emergency”. The President of Brazil regarded such statements as interference in national sovereignty. The issue was placed on the agenda for discussion at the G7 meeting but agreement or statements were not expected because of the presence of US resident Donald Trump.

Macron signified that a trade deal with Brazil and other South American countries would be jeopardised without action on the fires and if Brazil carried out a threat to withdraw from the Paris agreement.

All nations have economic success as the pinnacle of national achievement but governments will listen and act only when trade or economic viability is threatened. Whilst trade can be jeopardised by miserable squabbles over tariffs such as those between the US and China, we now have the emergence of trade as a means of levering a better future for all humanity; nations cannot wreck their environment to the detriment of others.

In a seminal paper, Mark Harvey identifies food production as the greatest cause of environmental change and when China imposed a tariff on imported US soybeans, Brazil increased production for export to China. “Two climate-change denying Presidents, plus growing demand for soya as animal feed for China’s growing meat consumption, plus deforestation and land conversion in Brazil. Result? An explosive climate change acceleration event”

Tropical rainforest fires are also increasing in the poor countries of Africa and Asia from land clearing for food; this requires help with sustainable development from rich countries like Australia which presently has a pitiful aid budget. Aid is currently managed as reluctant benevolence not as a means of security for all.

As the European Union(EU) and Australia prepare for the next round of FTA negotiations in October, the Guardian Australia reports that our poor fuel quality, which prevents the sale to Australia of European vehicles which require a higher fuel standard, will be raised as a “technical barrier to trade”.

Australia’s domestic fuel standards are a health hazard and have been for several years due to federal government inaction. They contribute to the 3000 deaths each year from air pollution in Australia but it is unlikely that the EU has our respiratory and cardiac health as its main consideration; it wants to sell more vehicles with the bonus that cleaner fuel brings a small reduction in emissions.

However, more importantly the EU–Australia free trade agreement must lock in Australia’s support for stringent emissions reduction targets under the Paris agreement. Indeed, ahead of the Bonn climate meeting in June the Australia government was challenged by the EU and China about its ability meets its Paris commitments.

The EU and particularly France and Germany will have noted Australia’s frequent misrepresentation that we are on track to reach our emission targets “in a canter”, and that the Ministers for Resources and for Emissions Reduction have climate denial traits! The EU will no doubt seek and assess the facts from Australia and international scientists.

Australia zealously intends to develop its extensive coal and gas resources and currently many new mines are being approved. All barriers to the development of the huge Adani mine, including the extinguishment of native title to Aboriginal land, clearance of vegetation and permissive use of water from the Great Artesian Basin, are approved. Both major parties support these approvals. These excesses which threaten the world’s long term stability will have been noted.

This Australian government promotes its economic credentials and free trade philosophy, but soon, if the world is to avert climate catastrophe, it will have to listen to climate diplomacy and be truthful.

From its connection with the Pacific Forum, France will be fully aware of Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister’s response the Islanders request for no new coalmines. He said they would survive climate change because “they pick our fruit”. This was equally demeaning as Marie Antoinette’s dismissal of the poor “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”.

Consequently Australian governments must attempt to understand the vision of Macron “There is no planet B” and that a change in their attitude is essential if they are to have an economy to worship.

Currently there is no international agreement which provides protection against environmental harm but the brazen happenings in Brazil must lead to the advancement of ecocide as a crime.

Future progress in climate diplomacy needs involvement of those with economic clout. The US public is now in some degree of panic about climate change and if Trump is defeated next year progress is possible. In our wildest dreams for survival we might even see hope for caring power replacing destructive power. The moral challenge from small nations as enunciated by Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu of Vanuatu will also play a part with those who can understand their responsibilities

Dr. David Shearman AM FRACP is a founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia and emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University

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