The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s plan to combat climate change leaves coal-loving Australia an outlier

A koala climbs a charred eucalyptus tree Jan. 20 on fire-ravaged Kangaroo Island, South Australia. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

SYDNEY — Joe Biden's victory in the presidential election was largely welcomed by America's friends as a step toward more predictable and conventional U.S. foreign policy. One close American ally, though, faces a thorny predicament as a result of Biden's plan to build a global coalition to combat global warming: Australia.

Australia is the world’s second-largest coal exporter and top liquefied natural gas exporter, according to industry bodies, and one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases per person. This status, combined with years of hand-wringing on both sides of Australian politics over climate policies, has earned the country a reputation as a climate-change laggard.

Under pressure from coal and gas interests, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to adopt the prevailing international target of reaching net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050, putting Australia at odds with the incoming U.S. administration, the European Union, Britain and Japan. Even China, a big buyer of Australian coal, has pledged to be net neutral by 2060.

Morrison, by contrast, famously brought a lump of coal into Parliament in 2017, telling those seeking bolder steps on emissions reduction: “Don’t be afraid.”

Record fires and dead coral reefs aren’t dulling Australia’s lust for coal

Biden’s election has emboldened Australians who say their country has a moral obligation to be at the forefront of global efforts to combat climate change. That’s placing intense political pressure on Morrison’s conservative government as the country heads into another summer, less than a year after wildfires scorched vast tracts of the country and spurred calls for urgent steps to alleviate the threat from longer fire seasons and increasingly calamitous conditions.

“Australia has nowhere to hide,” former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd said in an interview. “It’s time for Morrison to swallow his pride, admit he was wrong and embrace a carbon target.”

The Liberal-National coalition government, which signed Australia up for the 2016 Paris climate agreement before Morrison became leader in 2018, has said it expects to achieve net-zero emissions at an indeterminate point in the future.

In the meantime, the government, which abolished a tax on emissions in 2014, has decided to base its energy policy on the use of natural gas, angering scientists who are pushing for greater use of wind and solar power.

“Our policies won’t be set in the United Kingdom; they won’t be set in Brussels; they won’t be set in any part of the world other than here,” Morrison said last week.

U.S. trade threat

When it comes to the environment, Australia is a paradox. Proud of setting aside some 23 percent of its landmass for parks and reserves, and the guardian of the Great Barrier Reef, the nation is nonetheless a significant contributor to global warming through its large mining and energy industries.

Australia is the only member of the 37-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that has not set minimum fuel-efficiency standards for cars, according to Christian Downie, an academic at the Australian National University in Canberra who studies climate politics.

Once a Biden administration takes office, one of the main economic threats to Australia is whether the United States goes ahead with a plan to impose tariffs on big emitters of carbon dioxide.

Australia’s prime minister visited families devastated by the wildfires. It did not go well.

“We have a very aggressive plan to move on this internationally, not just rejoining Paris but also working to get our allies, partners and others to raise their ambitions,” a Biden campaign adviser, Tony Blinken, told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in September. “I’d like to think that’s a place where the U.S. and Europe can lead together.”

In addition to the trade impact — the United States is one of Australia’s top trading partners — an economic dispute between the two countries would be diplomatically embarrassing for the Australian government.

Morrison has already invited Biden to visit Australia for the 70th anniversary of their three-way military alliance with New Zealand next September. Given the invitation is public, a no-show by Biden might be perceived as a personal snub of a country that has fought alongside America in every major war since World War I.

“The Biden administration can’t directly influence Australia’s domestic climate policies, but if other developed countries are all moving in a more ambitious direction with the restoration of U.S. leadership in this area, the Australian government would find it difficult to resist this pressure,” Jacqueline Peel, a University of Melbourne lawyer and member of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in an email.

Power of Murdoch

Morrison faces resistance to more-aggressive climate action from the conservative wing of his party, which points out that Australia contributes only 1.3 percent of global emissions, and therefore should not be at the forefront of policies that could harm the economy.

Climate activists counter that Australia’s large exports of coal and natural gas, which are not counted in its total emissions under international rules, place a greater moral responsibility on the rich country.

One of the reasons Morrison is reluctant to take tougher action, the activists say, is the political influence of Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media mogul whose family controls Fox News in the United States.

Murdoch’s newspapers dominate Australia’s metropolitan markets and have published columns expressing skepticism about the need for strong climate policies. The massive wildfires last summer, which killed or displaced an estimated 1 billion animals, were blamed on arsonists by some Murdoch publications, which also downplayed the contribution of global warming.

The perception that Murdoch’s newspapers are muddying the issue has added to criticism of his publishing company, News Corp., and led Rudd, the former prime minister, to propose a formal inquiry similar to a presidential commission to investigate Murdoch’s influence over the Australian political system.

An anti-Murdoch petition to Parliament initiated by Rudd this month received more than 500,000 signatures, and helped persuade the Australian Senate to begin an inquiry into media diversity that is likely to focus on News Corp.

Rudd has accused the media group of acting as a booster for the conservative government in a similar fashion to Fox’s editorial support for the Trump administration.

His campaign has received the support of Malcolm Turnbull, a former conservative prime minister. During a live television debate last week, Turnbull dared one of Murdoch’s senior columnists, Paul Kelly, to resign from a company he said encouraged people to question if humans are warming the planet.

“How offensive, how biased, how destructive does it have to be, Paul, before you will say — one of our greatest writers and journalists — ‘It’s enough, I’m out of it’?” Turnbull said on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“Now, I understand you being upset about our company,” Kelly replied. “But essentially, what you’re doing is you’re transferring your own political failures and wishing to blame our company for them.”

News Corp., which employs several anti-Trump columnists, said that 3.4 percent of the articles in its main newspapers on the wildfires last year and early this year mentioned arson or arsonists.

“Not one of these small number of stories state the bush fires were all the consequences of arsonists,” a News Corp. spokesman said.

On the center-left side of Australian politics, climate policy is wreaking havoc, too. Last week, opposition Labor’s spokesman for energy, Joel Fitzgibbon, resigned, citing what he said was the party’s overly aggressive demands for cuts in greenhouse gases.

The departure delighted the government, which used his critique to attack what it said was Labor’s abandonment of working-class people — a criticism that echoed President Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to end the “war on coal.”

Analysis: Apocalyptic wildfires may force a climate reckoning for Australia’s conservative leader

Record fires and dead coral reefs aren’t dulling Australia’s lust for coal

As fires devastate Australia, a coal-loving leader faces an early test