Fair Weather Friend? Ethics and Australia's Approach to Global Climate Change

By McDonald, Matt | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Fair Weather Friend? Ethics and Australia's Approach to Global Climate Change


McDonald, Matt, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


In February 2005, the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entered into force. This development, some thirteen years after the UNFCCC was established and seventeen years after states began to meet to discuss possibilities of cooperative climate change mitigation, has occurred in spite of the resistance of two developed states: the United States and Australia. In light of the protocol's entry into force, it becomes important to reflect upon why these states have remained outside the terms of the agreement, and how they have gone about defining (and defending) their respective positions. This paper focuses on Australia's approach to the issue of climate change, specifically in terms of its approach to international cooperation. In particular, it attempts to make sense of the ethical assumptions underpinning Australia's approach, and interrogate the ethical arguments put forward by the Australian Government in justifying its position, from the emergence of global climate change as an international political issue in the late 1980s to the present.

Ethical assumptions underpin all approaches to foreign policy and international interaction in general. Foreign policy decisions and approaches are ultimately predicated upon a series of assumptions, whether acknowledged or not, concerning where boundaries of moral responsibilities lie, what the nature of obligation to others in the international community is, how considerations for others in a global context are weighted relative to commitments to domestic populations, and which groups or actors in a domestic setting are deemed most important in considerations of the "national interest". While an ethical exploration of all approaches to foreign policy is therefore possible, it is particularly applicable to governments' approach to the issue of global climate change. Climate change is a global problem with global implications. Different actors throughout the international community, however, bear different levels of responsibility for the problem, will be affected by manifestations of climate change in different ways, and have differing capacities to respond effectively to the problem itself. It should not be surprising, therefore, that international attempts to redress the problem of global climate change have focused on ethical questions. In particular, analyses and practices of climate change cooperation have focused on the question of how to incorporate such ethical complexities into the global institutional structure designed to address the problem itself.

This paper argues that the Australian Government's position on climate change has steadily progressed (or regressed) from one that originally acknowledged Australia's obligations to the most vulnerable in different spatial and temporal contexts to an ultimate rejection of such obligations. In particular, the government has increasingly rejected the core ethical principles underpinning international approaches to climate change: the "polluter pays" and "ability to pay" principles, which are based on retributive and distributive justice concerns respectively. (2) The paper is divided into three broad sections. The first reflects on attempts to incorporate, or at least consider the role of, ethical principles in approaches to global climate change. The second outlines the progression of Australia's approach from the late 1980s to the present, noting central policies and dynamics of interaction concerning climate change in this period. The final section focuses on the current government's approach to climate change cooperation, and in particular on the ethical underpinnings of that approach.

Ethics and Global Climate Change

Ethical questions have been central to attempts to understand the ramifications of global climate change, and to the institutionalization of global cooperative responses to the problem itself. Questions such as who bears responsibility for the problem; what is the nature of this responsibility; who will be most vulnerable to the effects of climate change; and who is most able (or obliged) to respond to it are fundamentally ethical questions, the answers to which necessarily entail certain ethical commitments. …

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Fair Weather Friend? Ethics and Australia's Approach to Global Climate Change
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