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Foreign Policy and Global Warming: Implications for Australia

Allan Behm

Global warming is a genuinely “wicked” question: it comprehends multiple economic, environmental, geophysical, political, social and strategic dimensions all interacting and intersecting with each other in random ways. And like most “wicked” questions, the answers are messy, demanding constant adjustment and reconfiguration as new problems arise and ones that we might have thought were solved become even more complicated.

For itself, Australia has significantly increased the wickedness of the foreign policy implications and consequences of global warming by its ineptitude in setting emissions reduction targets, compounded by Prime MinisterMorrison’s tin-eared and tuneless performance at the GlasgowConference of the Parties (COP). Quite simply, Morrisonlacks even basic diplomatic skills, for which Australia is diminished on the world stage. It’s not everyone who can mistake “China” for “climate change”, as Morrison did in his broadcast speech1 at the Glasgow COP.

On 26th October 2021, prior to his departure for the G20 summit in Rome and the GlasgowCOP, Morrison announced ‘The Australian Way’, a so-called whole-of-economy plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Fortunately for Australia, the states and territories themselves have embarked on significant carbon reduction initiatives that could well achieve net zero emissions by 2050. But by labelling his plan “The Australian Way”, Morrison has confirmed Australia’s position as a freeloader2 and laughing-stock in the international community. His plan is little more than a confection of smoke and mirrors, an un-road-tested “technology road map” and spin (such as the misleading “technology not taxes” slogan3), with 15 percent of the plan to be achieved through unknown and hence unproven technology breakthroughs.

But the much greater own-goal in the lead-up to the Glasgow COP was the government’s refusal to announce any new emissions reduction goals for 2030, effectively conferring pariah status on ourselves among the G20 and OECD members. Instead, Morrison resorted to his usual tactic of truculence, seeking to wedge Labor into announcing targets and thereby making itself a target. At the COP itself, Morrison’s ability to transform bumbling bonhomie into belligerent irrelevance was virtuosic. And, on the margins of all this, the public slanging match with the President of France over the botched submarine deal inflicted serious damage on Morrison’s credibility and Australia’s image. Like Louis XIV, Morrison couldn’t refrain from declaring, “l’état c’est moi” as he transmogrified Macron’s personal comment about his deceitfulness into a French sledge on Australia. Australia needs better leadership than that, and as a nation we can do so much better.

At best, the outcome of COP26 can be described as the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts. Good in that, for the first time, Parties were willing to call out the key climate change causes, namely fossil fuels. While highly qualified as phasing down (not out) of “unabated coal power” and “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”, it begins the process of naming and shaming coal, and indirectly, coal proponents like Morrison. But self-deprecating, hangdog whimsy is not a realistic way to assess the significance of the “wholey bad” consequences of the COP. Australia hid behind China and Russia to avoid any serious commitment to reducing methane or phasing out fossil-fuelled transport. On the pledges made and not made in Glasgow, the global temperature increase by the end of this century will exceed 2oC – a disaster for the world’s archipelagic and island states, as well as the great continental landmasses of Africa, Australia, China and Russia, not to mention the global biosphere.

And pledges, of course, go only so far: without an enforceable regulatory mechanism, backsliding and reneging will continue to undermine the chances of real reductions in the rate of global warming and radically increase the cost to all nations, especially the poorest, to bring the burn-rate under control. For the most part, climate diplomacy by the major polluters, including Australia, is cynical and selfish. While this remains the case, the world will continue its slide into disaster.

So, for future governments, the foreign policy challenge is to recover from the incompetence and missteps, rebuild our image and restore our credibility as a confident, concerned and constructive internationalist. Key foreign policy priorities will be to restore Australia’s image as an energetic and imaginative participant in global initiatives to reduce carbon emissions to a level that makes a 1.5oC target achievable, and not unrelated to that, to restore a workable diplomatic relationship with China. This is a formidable task, because it demands fundamental change in the structure and direction of Australia’s energy economy. It is a task that will put heavy demands on the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Climate Change and Energy Minister should Australia be fortunate enough to have a change of government at the forthcoming election.

By allowing Morrison to stew away in his own political juices for the last two weeks of the 2021 Parliamentary session, Labor played the politics well. And by announcing its 43 percent interim target by 2030 at the very end of the last sitting week, Albanese returned the climate war to the public centre ground. With a Goldilocks target – just so-so – and without a compelling suite of policy instruments to deliver the target, there is evidently more to be done. And, for once, the political auguries seem to be OK.

But the work of Anthony Albanese, Penny Wong and Chris Bowen won’t end there. There is an immediate need for them to curtail the enormous rents exacted by the hydrocarbon industry in general and the coal industry in particular, especially the direct and implicit subsidies with which they are endowed around the globe. Then they have the even more formidable task of helping to establish and then to operate an international system that might avoid the more dramatic foreign policy consequences of global warming, or at least ameliorate them. Chief among these implications is the relentless task of converting the pledges given at the Glasgow COP into guarantees, and then negotiating the rules by which those guarantees are delivered and the sanctions that might be imposed if they’re not.

The international community must focus on this work over the next nine years to reach strong interim targets. If history is a guide, we know that pledges, whether in the domain of international development or disaster relief, are very often unredeemed. President Joko Widodo’s pledge4 to reinstate 600,000 hectares of mangrove forest in Kalimantan was incinerated by his Environment and Resources Minister within hours of its announcement.

Successive Australian governments have talked endlessly about the need for stability in the international system – the international rules-based order – which is so attractive until the rules apply to us. Yet global warming, like nuclear weapons, is an existential threat to humanity that demands global rules if it is to be brought under control. This has been a chronic problem at the centre of the COP’s inability to deliver since the first COP in Berlin in 1995. The truth is that the COP needs teeth.

In its 2021 Climate Change Risk Assessment5, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) commented that the risks to global populations are compounding and that the impacts will be devastating, a finding that has been endorsed by the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group. This was amplified on the eve of the Glasgow COP when the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), Patricia Espinosa, warned6 that without deep reductions in CO2 emissions, global security and stability could break down, with migration crises and food shortages bringing conflict and chaos. And just a matter of days before the COP met in Glasgow, Chatham House released its research report, What near-term climate impacts should worry us most?7 in which it identified food security issues in South and South East Asia, and Australasia, as among the near-term impacts of greatest concern.

The extent and scale of likely security effects of climate change are overwhelming, and, as I pointed out8 in 2008, are not conducive to unilateral or bilateral solutions. They are global problems that demand global solutions, and that’s the core challenge facing the world’s leaders, including Australia’s. It is a diplomatic issue of the gravest moment.

It’s almost twenty years since Philip Bobbitt published his monumental The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History in which he argues that epochal wars are the crucible in which global constitutionality is formed: war, and the massive suffering it generates, is the trigger for new rules and the restoration of order. Just as the horrors of two world wars (which Bobbitt calls “the Long War”) led to a re-invention of global governance in the form of the United Nations, so the threats deriving from global warming demand better ways of imagining solutions and completely new ways of constructing international institutions. The reform project underway in the UN may introduce some improvement to current processes, but is unlikely to deliver the “new world” we need.

Patrick Stewart captured this task well in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs.

It is time to govern the world as if the earth mattered. What the world needs is a paradigm shift... that is rooted in ecological realism and that moves cooperation on shared environmental threats to centre stage. Call this new worldview “planetary politics.” All governments, starting with Washington, must designate the survival of the biosphere as a core national interest and a central objective of national and international security—and organize and invest accordingly. A shift to planetary politics will require a new, shared understanding of the duties of sovereign states, serious commitments to sustainable development and investment, and innovative international institutions.9

This requires all states to set global survival as the critical pre-condition for national survival rather than pursuing narrow national economic interests in a form of economic sectarianism. But the last few COPs suggest that this is a task beyond the competence of sovereign states as currently conceived – a point that Bobbitt speculates upon towards the end of his book in his analysis of the concept of “the market state”.

So, the cardinal issue here is how the conduct of foreign policy and the development of appropriate global institutions is to be effected. This highlights the critical and intersecting roles of two principal avenues of attack: investing in the personal leadership qualities of people who are prepared to step up to the challenge, supporting them and acknowledging their credibility; and mobilising authoritative and acknowledged nation-state leadership on which personal leadership must ultimately rest.

Unsurprisingly, two of the world’s most experienced global warming policy advisers, John Podesta and Todd Stern have a solution.10 The US needs to put climate policy at the centre of its foreign policy, and the US President needs to lead the global enterprise. This is ambitious, especially in view of ex-President Trump’s total rejection of the Paris Accords and his encouragement of hydrocarbon exploration, development and exploitation by the US in pursuit of economic growth and imported hydrocarbon substitution. It is also complicated by the tendency for all global issues to be seen through the lens of strategic competition between the US and China, and the personal competition between President Xi and whoever might be President of the US. But, as Podesta and Stern rightly acknowledge, “The harsh reality is that if the United States and China don’t get climate change right, the fallout from that failure will dwarf most other issues, including those stemming from U.S. competition with China”.

This creates a significant foreign policy opportunity for Australia. Given its enduring relationship with the US, Australia has a golden opportunity to escape the largely self- imposed role of eternal security acolyte of the US and transform itself into a substantive partner of the US in a critical but altogether transcendent security enterprise – protecting the globe and its biosphere from carbon-induced self-destruction, a critical human security task. This, of course, demands a change in America’s leadership paradigm from one of competitive pre-eminence to one of collaborative coalition. It also calls for a change in Australia’s relationship paradigm from one of subservient followership to one of constructive partnership.

The US has a well-established network of allies and partners across the globe. While these alliances were variously established to defeat communism, contain the Soviet Union, establish and manage defence relationships and, more recently, to contain China, they provide a workable infrastructure for the more necessary and significant task of reaching net zero carbon emissions earlier than 2050, starting the draw-down of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2050 and containing global warming within the 1.5oC limit. Moreover, the US has the authority, weight, wealth and technological know-how to provide effective leadership to those nations willing to act together.

What is required here is transformative coalition building. Along with maintaining alliances and coalitions against real or perceived threats by nation states, we need to imagine and then create coalitions that work to a common purpose in the interests of human security everywhere. But to achieve this, Australia needs to resile from its boisterous barracking, step out of the shadow of the US and exercise the agency that comes from its own power, status and wealth. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, the US demonstrated that it had the ability and the will to do this. And in establishing the United Nations, the US had Australia’s strong commitment and support.

Australia, as one of the world’s top per capita carbon polluters, and the US, as one of the world’s top national carbon polluters, have every reason to combine in this enterprise and work cooperatively with the other major carbon polluters, especially China and India, to implement a distributed leadership model which relies on results rather than finger-pointing and name-calling.

The one outcome of Glasgow that could make Australia’s coalition-building task more achievable is the agreement11 reached by China’s Xie Zhenhua and America’s John Kerry to go beyond the intense strategic competition that has marked the bilateral US-China relationship over the past five years and work cooperatively to “accelerate the transition to a global net zero economy”. In the interests of global climate security, Australia must get right behind this agreement, both to legitimise and to normalise it. And very significantly, this agreement was endorsed at President Xi’s and President Biden’s virtual summit on 15th November 2021.

There is no gainsaying the fact that this is a monumental task. It demands a change of strategic mindset and a paradigm shift in imagining how nations can act together in their mutual interest. Senator Penny Wong has called for12 a more capable and better resourced diplomatic service to meet the diplomatic challenges that lie before us. And Podesta and Stern are just as vocal in calling for the US president to act.

A president ready to take on climate change must organise the government to meet this challenge and work with Congress to enact a broad program of investments and incentives for the development and dissemination of clean technology. Abroad, the US must devise a climate-centered foreign policy13 that uses the country’s political capital and economic resources to drive the decarbonisation of the global economy. Several changes are needed—starting at the White House and extending to key bilateral relationships, international forums, and financial institutions—to accelerate a global clean energy transformation and galvanize the political will necessary to confront climate change. The tools to spur clean technological innovation, promote sustainable investment and job creation, and confront environmental injustices are within political leaders’ grasp. Heads of state and government need only be willing to employ them.

And that, evidently, is the challenge: global leaders must grasp these tools and use them.


Allan Behm is Director, International and Security Affairs Program, The Australia Institute, Canberra.


End notes

  1. speech-causes-outrage-China.html

  2. source=Adestra&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Morning%20News%20-%2020211028

  3. freeload-off-the-rest-of-the-world

  4. restorasi-600-ribu-ha-hutan-bakau


  6. summit-failure?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

  7. worry-us-most-quiggin-et-al_0.pdf





  12. 20211109-p5979h.html


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