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Morrison government can’t conceal inaction on climate from US with ‘smoke and mirrors’

Katharine Murphy Political editor
·4-min read

One of the world’s most influential climate scientists Michael E Mann says John Kerry and US climate negotiators are not going to be “fooled by the smoke and mirrors the Morrison government appears to be employing to distract from their clear record of inaction on climate”.

Joe Biden has invited 40 world leaders, including Scott Morrison, to a virtual summit on the climate crisis next week – an event coinciding with Earth Day.

Ahead of next week’s summit, Australia’s ambassador to the US, Arthur Sinodinos, said he had conveyed Australia’s desire to work with the US to promote investment in low-emissions technology to Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry.

Sinodinos told Nine newspapers on Wednesday the Biden administration believed climate action was a “politically fraught issue” for Australia, but the Morrison government could “use that fact as a chance to explain why we’ve taken the approach we have to climate change and why policies such as carbon pricing and carbon taxation have fallen by the wayside”.

Related: It’s not too late for Australia to forestall a dystopian future that alternates between Mad Max and Waterworld | Michael Mann

Mann, who is a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at PennState University, said the Morrison government seemed to be pursuing an approach of talking a better game on climate action in response to “the pressure coming from renewed American leadership on climate, while continuing to promote policies – such as a gas-led recovery – that do absolutely nothing to address the climate crisis in any meaningful way”.

But the American climatologist said Kerry had a detailed grasp of policy issues having “helped negotiate the successful bilateral agreement between the US and China during the Obama presidency which laid the foundation for the successful Paris agreement, which he also helped negotiate as secretary of state under Obama”.

Kerry in February publicly acknowledged “differences” between the US and Australia in tackling the climate crisis while calling for a faster exit from coal-fired power. During a call with Kerry in March, Morrison reiterated Australia’s intention to reach net zero emissions “as soon as possible and preferably by 2050” and transition Australia to a “new energy economy”.

In a statement issued in March, the White House said the summit would “underscore the urgency – and the economic benefits – of stronger climate action” with the event “a key milestone on the road to the United Nations Climate Change Conference [Cop26] this November in Glasgow”.

The statement said a key goal of the summit and of Cop26 would be to “catalyse efforts” to hold warming at 1.5C , and the summit would “highlight examples of how enhanced climate ambition will create good paying jobs, advance innovative technologies, and help vulnerable countries adapt to climate impacts”.

Biden is expected to announce what the administration has termed “an ambitious 2030 emissions target” at next week’s summit now the US has re-entered the Paris agreement.

While Morrison’s language on achieving net zero by mid century has warmed considerably since Biden won the US election and a number of Liberals favour the Coalition making a concrete commitment, it is unclear whether or not Australia will flag any new policy commitments at next week’s summit.

Sinodinos has previously intimated that the Morrison government is considering updating its emissions reduction targets in the lead-up to Cop26 in November, but in Wednesday’s interview with Nine newspapers, the ambassador said Australia wanted “to tell the story of what we’ve actually done on climate”.

Related: A ‘win’ for fossil fuels: green groups critical as former Origin Energy boss named chief of climate body

Mann said despite the recent shift in language in Canberra, he remained “sceptical that the Morrison government, which sees itself as a cheerleader for fossil fuel interests rather than a champion of its citizens, can ever engage meaningfully on climate”.

The shadow climate change minister Chris Bowen meanwhile told a webinar organised by the progressive thinktank, the Australia Institute, that the Morrison government would “sell out” the national interest if it didn’t accelerate the transition.

“The US climate change summit will be held next week and this is an important stepping stone to Cop26 in November and Australia is already under pressure from our most important ally to show a longer commitment,” Bowen said.

“Our political opponents like to pretend that somehow this international situation and pressure doesn’t apply to us, that what’s happening overseas doesn’t affect Australian jobs”.

Bowen said it was important to understand the “economic cost for Australia of being left behind”.

“Australia is now trading in a mid-century net zero environment, with over 120 countries and 70% of our trading partners committed – that is just a fact – and Australia is the only developed country in the world not committed to net zero by 2050”.

“Decarbonisation has begun at the hands of global capital and our trading partners. Now we can allow workers and communities to be decimated as that ramps up over future decades … or we can recognise that the globe’s climate emergency is Australia’s jobs opportunity”.