Why have a sizeable number of former Australian diplomats come out of retirement or post-DFAT employment to challenge the government's position on climate change? After long careers spent advocating for government policy, what has changed their minds?
The group I coordinate, Diplomats for Climate Action Now, includes about 100 former Ambassadors, Consuls-General, First Secretaries, aid workers and administrators, and senior public servants. Our members have served around the world in war zones and helped Australians in trouble in all corners of the globe; they have sat at the highest international fora negotiating agreements that have impacted millions; they have run large and small diplomatic missions, private and not-for-profit national and international enterprises; and managed multimillion-dollar aid programs that have helped pull countries out of poverty.
Now many of us are retired or working in other fields, but a few things unite us: our memories of serving our country, and our concerns that we, as a society, are not doing enough to counter the threat of climate change.
Back in the 1990s, when climate change was only just entering our national consciousness, we former diplomats diligently promoted Australian coal exports and later also supported our nation's massive expansion of its liquefied natural gas industry as we sought to increase Australia's energy exports around the world. This benefitted our mining and related rural communities enormously and contributed to huge industrial growth in trading partners such as Taiwan, Korea, Japan and China. Millions have risen out of poverty across Asia, partly because of Australian coal and gas.
But 30 years on we can see another result of our efforts. The huge amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases humanity has pumped into the atmosphere are having devastating effects on the climate, threatening our country, our low-lying neighbours in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and our archipelagic neighbours such as Indonesia.
Recently we have seen how rapidly the rest of world is responding, decisively, to this threat.
Our group of former diplomats are concerned that Australia's low level of ambition on climate change is becoming an obstacle in how we pursue our interests around the world. Once Australia was seen as a leading activist nation in world affairs, a model global citizen in areas as diverse as the law of the sea and depletion of the ozone layer. Now the world sees us as a "climate laggard". We lose international credibility when our leaders argue we can preserve our coal and gas industries when even the International Energy Agency tells us there is no need for any future investment in fossil fuels. We should be honest about this with our coal and gas communities, but also promise them a just transition to new, renewable-based industries.
When I began this project a few months ago, I expected I might garner the support of a few dozen of my former colleagues. But I have been amazed that so many have supported this initiative. It has not been easy to coordinate the views of almost 100 headstrong former diplomats.
Recently we launched A Climate-Focused Foreign Policy for Australia, in which we highlight the nexus between foreign policy and domestic climate policy: poor domestic policies reduce our influence in international fora and undermine Australia's ability to achieve our international objectives. In this paper we argue for strong pro-climate policies and look optimistically to a future where Australia becomes a major supporter for our regional partners as they decarbonise their economies; and we look to Australia becoming a significant renewable energy exporter and provider of environmental and energy services.
Sadly, climate change has become a political weapon when it should be a matter for bipartisan support. We are after all, dealing with the future of our planet, our nation, and our descendants.
So, the approach of our group of "reluctant activists" is to advocate for change through reason and argument, to appeal to all sides in the debate for a rational outcome.
We are a non-partisan group but not afraid to call out bad policy and bad decisions when we see them. We recognise that what we do in our own backyard matters to others; and that we have a responsibility to leave behind a better world than that which we inherited.
Perhaps if we drop the politics from climate action, even the most hardened of coal-lovers will see the light. And in going forward that light will be powered by renewable energy.
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