(COP 19, Warsaw) – Though much of the news surrounding the first few days of COP19 has been about the Philippines and their representative, Naderev “Yeb” Sano’s hunger strike, there has been another powerful message sent from their neighbors to the south, Australia, albeit a far less positive one.
Climate change is an international issue but all politics is local. Prime Minister Tony Abbott only came in to office in the middle of September, but by the end of the month the country experienced a government reorganization that significantly downgraded the importance of climate change. The country’s Climate Commission and Clean Energy Finance Corporation were disbanded. Though the former, through private donations, has been rebranded as the independent Climate Council. The Abbott government had made his anti-climate agenda including repealing the carbon tax and renewable energy targets, and reneging on reducing Australia’s emissions by 80% by 2050.
To make that clear to the world, Australia has sent no government minister to COP19.
The last absence was due to an ongoing election 16 years ago. Those following the country’s politics may only be slightly shocked by this recent slap in the face to the fight against climate change. For many at COP19 though, it came as quite a confusing move, as environment minister Greg Hunt also declared just last week that Australia wants a “deep, strong international agreement.” Despite sending Ambassador of Climate Change Justin Lee to Warsaw, they are sending a clear message to the Umbrella Group and member states in general: we do not think UNFCCC-set targets or agreements are legally binding in any way.
The Climate Action Network‘s Julie-Ann Richards points out that Australians are “living early climate change,” as the country has experienced the worst drought, cyclone, and bush fires they have ever seen, all in the last decade. She tells UN Dispatch, “basically the Minister back home is too busy repealing the climate legislation to come to the climate talks in Warsaw.” What makes their noted absence an even more frustrating, but politically savvy, move is that the Abbott government has is still in very beginning stages of drafting their own alternative, as Richards explains to us that “they would repeal a decent body of legislation and replace it with nothing or a question mark” for the foreseeable future.
As if Australia’s inaction was not already detrimental to the environment, they took matters a step further by declaring they would announce no new climate finance initiatives. In light of the devastation caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan and the funding needed for repairs, that move seems politically motivated and obtuse.
Truthfully, the snub is not about sending a ministerial official to COP19. In fact, only 134 out of 193 countries are doing so. That title and level merely assume a strong climate voice in their respective countries. For instance the U.S. is sending a special envoy, but Todd Stern represents a government that, along with China, is doing more than Australia in terms of their 5% emissions reduction target. Yes, major emitter China is doing more than Australia. So it’s not the title of the representative, but the actions of their governments that really matter.