Australia and Climate Change: A Collective Action Problem

As Australia has burned in a climate emergency summer, our Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not only been untruthful about our nation’s effort and ability to contribute to global emissions reduction but has appeared to take smirking solace in the excuse not to contribute.

Photo via shutterstock, ID: 1611444352

Scott Morrison has said, in effect, that Australia is too small to make a difference to the world’s urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. This is not true – but even if it was, why would it be a cause for smug complacency given the destruction the climate crisis is bringing to our country?

Many of the world’s greatest environmental challenges can be understood as large scale collective action problems. A collective action problem is any situation where a set of actors would be better off cooperating but can’t get their act together, because of conflicting interests discouraging joint action. Indeed it is sometimes said that the climate emergency is the ultimate collective action problem.

So, in the context of the climate emergency, every nation would be existentially better off cooperating to take the rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities that are now essential to limit global warming to 1.5°C or less – to avoid further catastrophic climate damage and put us on the path to wise stewardship of the earth. Infamously though, so far, nations have for the most part failed to take this collective action because of immediate conflicting interests – usually dictated by institutional corruption on the part of coal, oil, gas and other big polluters within domestic political economy.

Australia has a unique interest in solving the climate crisis. The catastrophic, unprecedented fire conditions of this summer were aggravated by global warming – and if we don’t rapidly reduce emissions are a sign of worse to come. As Professor Ross Garnaut said twelve years ago, ‘Australia has a stronger interest in that than any other developed country because we are the most vulnerable of all developed countries’.

Not every actor is equal in a collective action problem. Clearly there is an asymmetry of power and consequences between, for example, the United States of America, China, the EU and most other nations.

Scott Morrison treats the combination of influence disparity and the collective action problem as a bit of a bonus: a happy excuse to get him and the nation off the hook. Prime Minister said last week that ‘we know that Australia on its own cannot control the world’s climate,’ as Australia accounts for a small percentage of global emissions – one of the various excuses trotted out for Australia’s dismal worst-in-class climate and energy policy.

When you face mortal danger, it is a curious thing to make a virtue of your own professed powerlessness.

Morrison’s excuse-making is neither lucky nor true. It is not lucky, because the climate emergency is inflicting terrible damage on Australia. It is not true, because Australia makes a massive contribution to global emissions: as the largest exporter of coal, the largest per capita producer of domestic emissions in the OECD world, and the fifth-largest producer of all fossil fuel emissions combined.

Australia is not benefiting from global climate inaction. The excuse of our size is not a good thing because our country is burning down as a consequence of humanity’s failure to solve the collective action problem of climate change.

If Australia’s powerlessness in the face of the global climate change collective action problem were true, it would be a cause for weeping and lamentation, not relief. But the truth is that Australia’s rapid transition to becoming a clean energy superpower would have an enormous impact on the global emissions reduction effort, not only through directly reducing the amount of carbon going into the air, but in terms of global political economy, political momentum and shifting international norms. And this is particularly so, if our efforts were accompanied by a complementary new diplomatic agenda seeking to support other nations in similarly taking strong emissions reduction measures.

When Morrison claims that Australia is ‘doing our bit’ to solve the climate crisis collective action problem, the fallacy could not be more blatant. Not only is Australia failing hopelessly to commit to real climate solutions, but by claiming that we are, Morrison’s falsity further undermines trust in the international diplomacy and politics of climate change, making it even harder to solve the collective action problem.

The reality is that the government of Scott Morrison is a laggard and a blocker in the world of global climate policy. Australia’s true national interest would be served by our willing and ambitious participation in global efforts to rapidly transform to a carbon-neutral world. Sadly, our national interest has been betrayed and institutionally corrupted by the vested concerns of coal and the rest of the fossil fuel industries.

Relative size and the challenges of collective global action are nothing more than an excuse for the Morrison government’s slavish defence of the fossil fuel industries.

Scott Morrison and his government are cunningly using the very nature of the problem to duplicitously sabotage global efforts to respond to the climate crisis. It is a complete betrayal that is to the massive detriment of the country they are meant to be leading and serving.

David Ritter is the Chief Executive Officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. He has been with Greenpeace for nine years, campaigning to secure an earth capable of nurturing life in all its amazing diversity. He is an affiliate of both the Sydney Environment Institute and the Sydney Democracy Network.