Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:12 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:12 | SYDNEY

Five obvious points about climate change


Hugh White

16 December 2008 09:43

Obvious point 1: The hardest thing about greenhouse gas emissions as a policy challenge is that it is so unrelentingly global. Individual countries acting alone can do nothing to protect themselves or anyone else from the long-term effects of carbon emissions. 

So what matters to Australia – and everyone else – is not individual emission-cut targets like those announced yesterday, but the negotiation of an effective global agreement which will cut emissions around the world.

Obvious point 2: The most important thing any government can do – including the Rudd Government – is to get an effective global agreement signed and implemented. The focus of that effort will be the Copenhagen Conference next year, but the real work needs to be done before then. The most urgent need is to drive the development of an international consensus on the shape of a global agreement that can be tabled at Copenhagen and form the basis of a deal.

Obvious point 3: This is an issue on which Australia can make a real difference.  Brokering a deal like this is a job for middle powers like us. The key to a global agreement will be compromise between the biggest players – the US, China, the EU and so on. They will not be the ones who start shaping a deal, because they will not want to give too much away too early. It’s always the middle players who can table the creative ideas around which compromise and consensus eventually coalesces. 

Moreover, Australia is well-placed to play a leading role. We are a serious greenhouse player, with a big stake in the game for our size. And we have long experience in this kind of work in other fields. Think of the Cairns Group, the Cambodia settlement, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: on all these difficult, complex negotiations it was Australian diplomats who did the leg work in designing, adjusting and finally delivering a global compromise.

Obvious point 4: This is the kind of activist, ambitious middle power diplomacy that Kevin Rudd keeps telling us he wants to undertake. But like all activist diplomacy, it is hard work — ask Gareth Evans and the people who worked for him on initiatives like the Cambodian Settlement. 

So far, Rudd’s foreign policy has been characterised by broad statements on big issues showing little depth or substance, and no detailed preparation. Activist middle power diplomacy is not for people with a short attention span.  Nor is it for the feint-hearted. By definition, this kind of diplomacy makes big powers like China and the US uneasy, because the deal that starts to emerge is one that no-one is happy with. But you don’t get results by being nice to everyone. Again, ask Gareth.

Obvious point 5:  This is so much more important than our bid for the Security Council seat – and probably has a better chance of success…

Obvious conclusion: Australia should launch a major campaign, perhaps working with others, to design a credible, effective outcome for Copenhagen and sell it around the world. Our aim should be that when the meeting convenes, the main focus of attention will be ‘the Australian draft’.