Australia’s $200 million climate pledge falls short of its true debt

Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop are bidding to repair the government’s tarnished reputation on climate - but have they pledged enough? AAP Image/Lukas Coch

At the United Nations Lima climate summit, Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop has pledged A$200 million over four years to the Green Climate Fund, which seeks to raise US$100 billion (A$120 billion) per year by 2020 to help developing countries deal with climate change.

The announcement is good PR and plays readily into the narrative that the Abbott government will “reboot” and “re-engage” with voters in 2015. It also directs attention to the cabinet’s “star performer” Julie Bishop, and provides an alternative framing to Australia’s embarrassing isolation on climate action.

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and an alternative picture emerges. Put simply, the size of Australia’s contribution to the fund does not suggest that the government accepts the moral argument of “climate debt”, or that it is willing to put its neighbours’ well-being ahead of its own short-term political gain.

Climate debt is financially complex but morally simple. It is the idea that rich countries should pay reparations to poor countries for damage suffered as a result of climate change. Justin Lin, former chief economist at the World Bank, summed up the moral argument succinctly back in 2009:

“Developing countries, which have historically contributed little to global warming, are now, ironically, faced with 75 to 80 percent of the potential damage from it. They need help to cope with climate change, as they are preoccupied with existing challenges such as reducing poverty and hunger and providing access to energy and water.

The share of responsibility for fossil fuel-derived greenhouse emissions since 1750 can also be broken down by country. James Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, provided estimates in an open letter to Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Hansen estimated that the historical carbon debt of the United States was 27.5% of the total.

Australia has much lower cumulative emissions (1.5%) but is the worst greenhouse emitter per capita among major western nations. Using this figure, groups like the Climate Institute have suggested that A$350 million is the minimum fair contribution to climate financing that Australia should make.

Moral argument rejected

Arguments for climate debt have been persistently rejected by developed nations. For example, before the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, US State Department lead negotiator Todd Stern, denied that the United States should be held retroactively responsible for a problem that could not have been predicted, saying:

For most of the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, people were blissfully ignorant of the fact that emissions caused a greenhouse effect. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon.

In Australia, the political rhetoric has traditionally been more nuanced. In 2006, for example, the Labor opposition released a report called Our Drowning Neighbours. It called for a "Pacific Climate Change Strategy” to provide assistance for mitigation, adaptation and emergency response efforts; intra-country evacuations and training; establishing an international coalition to accept climate change refugees; assistance to preserve the cultural heritage of those evacuated; and the establishment of a Pacific Climate Change Alliance.

Labor distanced itself from this report while in government. But it was an early contributor to the Green Climate Fund, providing A$500,000 in 2012 to help get the new fund going, as well as almost A$600m to a precursor “fast-start” fund.

While much more was needed, the contrast between Labor’s policy and Abbott’s derision of the fund as a “Bob Brown bank” is stark.

Foreign aid to suffer

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Government’s announcement is that the pledge will be taken directly from the foreign aid budget. In other words, no new money will be allocated to help developing countries that are currently suffering the effects of climate change.

In light of the havoc currently being wrought by Typhoon Hagupit (Ruby) in the Philippines, this is a particularly callous decision. For the third year in a row, the Philippines has been battered by a major storm at the same time as the annual UN climate talks. The death toll from Hagupit has already reached 27, and many in the region are still recovering from Typhoon Haiyan, which killed at least 6,300 people in November 2013.

Countries like the Philippines do not have the luxury of playing politics with climate finance. At the opening session of the 2013 UN climate summit in Warsaw, Naderev “Yeb” Saño, leader of the Philippines Climate Change Commission, gave a tearful opening statement in which he pleaded:

If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here in Warsaw, where? What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness.

Following this, Saño did something extraordinary. He told delegates he would fast until the talks yielded progress. He held his fast for two weeks and was joined by hundreds of people at the conference and around the world.

For real progress to be made with the Green Climate Fund, our political leaders need to capture something of the seriousness and ethical integrity displayed by Saño. At present, the fund has only reached 10% of its target.

My fear is that as pressure mounts for climate negotiations to yield progress, power will concentrate in fewer hands and developing countries will continue to be sidelined.