The Paris Agreement is dead. Australia must change its strategic priorities

Dec 6, 2023
Climate change words

As COP28 flounders, the Paris Agreement is dead, and the imperative for emergency action has never been greater. This demands a fundamental change to Australia’s strategic priorities.

Second in a two-part series: Whither climate change? – The World and Australia

The first article in this series highlighted the risks of accelerating climate change, and the existential threat humanity now faces because of global leaders’ collective failure to take timely action, culminating in the COP28 meeting in Dubai not acting decisively to rapidly phase out fossil fuels.

The bottom line is that a 1.5oC average global surface temperature increase will be approached this year and, without radically accelerated action, the world is headed toward a catastrophic 3oC of warming, bringing the curtains down on contemporary civilisation.

In short, the Paris Agreement is dead and the imperative for emergency action has never been greater. This demands a fundamental change to Australia’s strategic priorities.

Human security not national security

Climate change is the greatest threat facing Australia, of a far higher magnitude than geopolitical issues around the US, China, Taiwan, Ukraine and now Israel which have dominated the political agenda since the last election. This is starkly underlined by the latest scientific research on tipping points, cascading risks and escalating climate-related disasters.

The government’s paranoia, that it will be accused of being soft on defence, has resulted in the continual prioritising of national security on conventional geopolitical grounds, particularly the AUKUS agreement, whilst the Opposition helpfully beats the drums of war. The real threat, climate change, is either ignored, downplayed or securitised as with the recent Office of National Intelligence climate security risk assessment which the government insists should remain classified on spurious national security grounds. Allowing national security to dominate political debate has been a fundamental strategic error, obscuring the climate reality.

Ironically, the failure of the government to spend serious time understanding and communicating the real climate risks Australia faces is leaving the community totally unprepared to face the threat ahead. Extensive resources, urgently needed to develop climate preparedness and resilience, are being mis-allocated to the defence/industrial complex, whilst communities have yet to recover from the trauma of past disasters such as the Lismore floods and South Coast bushfires. It is a national disgrace that people can still be sleeping in tents and cars two years after the event, whilst largesse is heaped upon ephemeral submarines which will probably never materialise even three decades hence. We need to get our priorities straightened out.

All countries and regions – whether the US, China, Russia, Europe, Africa or small Pacific islands – have the same problem. Overcoming the climate threat requires unprecedented global co-operation instead of conflict and militarisation. Otherwise, civil war and the societal collapse, which is already happening, will escalate dramatically.

The latest government initiative – the offer for Tuvalu residents to resettle in Australia as climate impacts increase – is a case in point. It recognises Australia’s role in creating the climate crisis and the potentially existential impact on Pacific nations. Albeit addressing the cause of the problem rather than the symptoms, by halting Australian fossil fuels expansion and rapidly reducing our domestic and exported emissions, would have been far more appropriate. But the agreement then obscenely gives Australia a veto right over Tuvalu’s security arrangements with any other country, putting it right back into the national security frame and wiping out its climate credibility.

The response to climate risks must not succumb to the knee-jerk call for even more fortress-building from the security establishment, but to reframe our security priorities as the protection of the population’s fundamental rights to food and water, shelter and work, with emergency climate action on top of the agenda as necessary to sustain such goals over this century.

In short, the focus should shift to human security in the broad sense, rather than national security in a narrow militaristic sense. If conventional national security thinking continues to dominate globally and is given the priority it currently enjoys, there is no solution to the existential climate threat humanity faces.

A climate rapprochement

The recent thawing in relations between the US and China, and our Prime Minister’s travels to both countries provide a valuable starting point for a climate rapprochement.

At the September G20 summit in New Delhi, the Prime Minister emphasised the urgency of climate action. Discussions between US President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the November 2023 APEC meeting also encompassed joint climate action, as subsequently indicated in the Sunnylands Statement.

So far these sentiments are focused on process, lacking recognition of the full range of climate risks and the need for sustained emergency action.

COP28 will fail to achieve outcomes remotely in line with the scientific imperatives, in part because the science and its risks are being downplayed, and a lowest-common-denominator decision-making process is delivering unenforceable voluntary agreements and promises which, if the history of previous COPs is any guide, will not be kept.

The greatest step forward at this point would be an agreement between the two largest global emitters, the USA and China, to set aside their geopolitical differences and prioritise real climate action.

Australia, with long-standing strategic links to the US, and extensive trade ties with China, has a unique opportunity to act as an honest broker to assist in such a development. It would be in Australia’s national interests to do so.

This would require Australia to break its addictive reliance on the US defence relationship, set aside its national security paranoia, adopt a more independent, sovereign, stance and be prepared to act for the global common good.

This requires principled leaders with integrity, foresight, courage and moral standing. Does the Albanese government have the fortitude and capability to take up this challenge? And is the Opposition prepared to accept the science and support the government in the interests of the Australian people, rather than spewing forth climate denialism for political advantage?

If not, we are in big trouble.

Part 1. Whither Climate Change? – The World and Australia

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