December 1, 2020

A Joe Biden victory could push Scott Morrison – and the world – on climate change

International action on emissions reduction will get a huge shot in the arm if the US election goes to the Democratic leader

I’m a deeply superstitious person, so I can barely bring myself to utter the words “if Joe Biden wins the American presidency next week”, but for the purposes of where we are going this weekend, I need to utter those words, because that’s our starting point for unpacking a few things.

If Biden wins, obviously that’s the end of Trumpism, which would be a boon on so many fronts. So, so many fronts. The compendium of boon would span many volumes, and we haven’t got all weekend, so let’s just hone in on one critical issue that impacts Australia, and that’s climate change.

If we take the former vice-president at his word (and if you want a recent interview that dives right in, have a look here), a Biden victory would be a massive shot in the arm for international action on emissions reduction.

Let’s whip through this quickly. Biden will bring America back into the Paris agreement. America will sign up to a net-zero emissions pledge by 2050, with an enforcement mechanism.

There’s also a big domestic agenda which I won’t get into because it’s not relevant to us, but this next bit is. Biden says he will “use every tool of American foreign policy to push the rest of the world to raise their ambitions alongside the United States”, including this: imposing carbon adjustment fees or quotas on carbon-intensive goods from countries that are failing to meet their climate and environmental obligations.

Assuming Biden wins (and while I know what the polls say, I’m really not convinced he will – seriously, I will only believe that when I see it) – but assuming he and the Democratic machine can carry the day against a demagogue and a digital ecosystem flooding the zone with misinformation, and assuming he delivers on his pre-election commitments (which would be aided by the Democrats taking back the Senate), the world is in different territory on climate action.

Perhaps anticipating imminent regime change in the US, we’ve seen China, Japan and South Korea make substantial mid-century pledges over the past few weeks. When the world shifts, Australia does wash up in different territory, because the Trump administration will no longer be giving the Coalition political and diplomatic cover to be an outlier.

Now we’ve made our way back home, let’s consider some events from the week. The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, raised net zero with Scott Morrison during a phone call on Tuesday night, according to the official read out circulated by Downing Street.

The Australian record didn’t mention that particular element of the conversation. The Australian prime minister was asked subsequently about net zero by journalists, and Morrison served Johnson up a lecture about minding his own business.

Australian climate targets would be determined in Australia, Morrison declared, not in Brussels or in London – a resumption of the prime minister’s faux fight about negative globalism. Just in case the point was missed, Morrison noted that Johnson, the man who led Britain out of the European Union, would absolutely understand the merits of nations asserting their sovereignty.

Adding to the appearance of a government deeply uninterested in climbing out of the climate hole the Liberal and National parties have dug for Australia, the Nationals went – I think the technical term is berserk – when a major bank signalled it would stop lending to its largest customers unless the businesses could demonstrate carbon transition plans.

Even though the ANZ was conforming with the expectations of shareholders and of regulators, which have issued multiple warnings about carbon risk in the financial system, some in very stark terms, Nationals lined up to decry rational, evidence-based corporate behaviour as “virtue signalling” or an instance of a bank trying to be a “moral compass”.

Almost like he was on the campaign trail for, hmmm, something – let’s not say the party leadership, because that job is taken obviously, and everybody adores everybody else in the National party room – David Littleproud declared: “We can’t let unelected, profit-driven financiers from Pitt Street dictate to society how to produce food and fibre or how we run our economy.”

As compelling as LiPro’s bumper-sticker wisdom is, let’s not linger here, but instead put a few things together. From these appearances, it would be easy to conclude that when it comes to climate policy, the Coalition just doesn’t give a rats. But some teensy tiny green shoots are in evidence if you whip out a very powerful magnifying glass.

The first is Morrison is leaving his options open on signing up to net zero. He has never, at any point, said Australia won’t do that. The prime minister has just created the appearance of being resistant to the idea, without locking himself in one way or the other.

The second is Morrison has decoupled the Coalition ever so slightly from coal by invoking the “gas-led” recovery (which, as I’ve said before, could either be diabolical or nothing much beyond the slogan).

The third is the government has also created the “technology roadmap” approach which, in the minds of some Liberals, is a means by which to appease the Nationals and the rightwingers who tear Liberal leaders out of a job at the mention of the words emissions reduction. As profoundly silly as it is for a government to create a roadmap absent a clear destination, the framework is a means to creeping towards a target without advertising that necessarily as an end point.

A Biden victory, and the global reset that heralds, would help.

It would help the people in the Coalition who understand that things need to change make a case for change. At a political level, if Labor can stop punching itself in the head post-election, if it can manage to get its own climate policy story straight and stop the self-indulgent navel gazing about who loves blue-collar workers and who is about as useless as a vegan in a butcher shop, a Biden victory also creates the opportunity to apply some productive political pressure on the Coalition.

But I wouldn’t overdo the optimism on this question. Labor is showing signs of sinking into a protracted identity crisis punctuated by symptomatic score-settling, and even if Morrison was committed to trying to engineer a viable opportunity to adopt a credible mid-century target (and that’s moot at best), he’s weighted with the following difficulties.

One: the Nationals would have a brain explosion. This political party has spent a couple of decades putting the interests of the resources industry ahead of the material interests of the agriculturalists who stand to lose, and lose big time, from runaway climate change, and they show no visible signs of waking up from their trance. Why would they, frankly, if agriculturalists keep voting for them?

Two: the Coalition has developed a successful formula to win elections which is based around weaponising climate change in the regions and neutralising it in the cities. The Liberal party is prepared to let people like Josh Frydenberg and Trent Zimmerman and Jason Falinski lose several points from their vote if it means the Nationals hold seats like Flynn, Capricornia and Dawson, and the Liberals hold Herbert and Leichhardt.

Three: the pandemic. This week we’ve seen an authoritative poll tell us Australians remain deeply worried about climate change despite the terrible anxieties of the year, and I’d like to believe this was right. But people I trust engaged in political research tell me the salience of climate has dropped after a massive surge during the bushfires because people are concerned about their economic security. The government could easily square the circle of economic security and the transition to low emissions if it chose to, but it shows zero inclination to make that case.

Without wanting to ruin anyone’s weekend, we have to track back to America to find our final cause for pessimism – and that it, of course, the re-election of Donald Trump next Wednesday Australian time.

If Trump returns to the White House, the prognosis is simple. The planet loses.