When John Kerry, the United States’ new special presidential envoy for climate, stepped up to speak to the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday he had Australia on his mind.
The former secretary of state had been struck by an article in the New York Times by the author Michael Benson that described satellite images of the “flame vortexes” that spiralled into the atmosphere as the continent’s wildlife burned a year ago, sending a plume across New Zealand and into the Pacific.
It was, Kerry said, evidence of the urgency of climate change “literally all around us”. He quoted Benson: “In the end Australia’s fires killed dozens of people, destroyed 5,900 buildings and quite likely, according to the best science, rendered some of the country’s endangered species extinct.
“With shocking iconographic precision, that unfurling banner of smoke said: ‘The war has started, we’re losing’.”
The expectation that Joe Biden would move quickly to reverse US recalcitrance on the climate crisis under Donald Trump has built since his election, but even those expecting an ambitious re-positioning have been stunned by the pace and breadth of the changes made.
Observers who spoke with Guardian Australia about the plan emphasised the comprehensiveness of the Biden administration’s vision. The order embeds dealing with the climate emergency across all government operations, with a particular focus on its importance in foreign policy and national security.
It underscores the scale of the international pressure the Morrison government is likely to face this year if it maintains its resistance to making the science-based commitments expected under the 2015 climate pact.
Where the Morrison government prefers not to use the term “climate change”, having banished it from the ministry and its main emissions reduction policy, Biden declared it an “existential threat to the planet” and his order says there is only “a narrow moment to pursue action at home and abroad” to avoid “the most catastrophic impacts” and to seize opportunities to create jobs.
His instructions include pausing and reviewing oil and gas drilling on federal land, doubling energy from offshore windfarms by 2030, moving federal government agencies from fossil fuel to clean cars, setting a goal of conserving at least 30% of lands and oceans by 2030, and ordering a national intelligence estimate on the economic and security implications of climate change.
The White House will introduce an office of domestic climate policy to coordinate Biden’s agenda, a national climate taskforce comprising of 21 government agency leaders and an environmental justice interagency council to address racial and economic inequities exacerbated by climate change and air and water pollution. It hopes to pass a $2tn clean energy package, with 40% of investments aimed at disadvantaged communities.
Bill Hare, chief executive of Berlin-based Climate Analytics and an adviser to developing countries on climate change for decades, says the scope of Biden’s actions so far has been surprising.
“It’s more than people thought they would do,” he says. “It’s comprehensive and coherent. Breathtaking really is the word.”
Martijn Wilder, a former chair of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and founding partner of the climate advisory firm Pollination, says he believes Biden’s plan is “the most comprehensive plan by any government ever on climate change”, and people were yet to fully grasp its significance, particularly in terms of national security and foreign policy.
How Biden intends to wield his influence internationally will become clearer in the lead up to a major economies climate summit he plans to host on Earth Day, 22 April. He has set the summit as a deadline to announce a new emissions reduction target for 2030 to put the US on the path to net zero by 2050. He has already promised a carbon-free power supply by 2035.
In contrast, Scott Morrison has said he will not increase what is widely seen as an unambitious 2030 emissions target (a 26-28% cut below 2005 levels) this year. The government has pulled out of the global climate fund, and continues to resist a mid-century net zero emissions target despite it being backed by more than 120 countries collectively responsible for about three-quarters of global GDP.
There is a growing expectation Morrison may relent on that point before a year-ending UN climate summit in Glasgow. But scientists and parts of the international community say a net zero target for 2050 would mean little unless backed by a detailed plan to get there, including deeper emissions cuts this decade. A group of policymakers and scientists this week released an analysis warning Australia should be aiming for net zero emissions well before 2050 if it was to take a science-based approach.
Reports have suggested the government believes it will not come under pressure from the US to do more on climate after an initial phone call between Kerry and the emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, which is said to have included discussion about establishing a working group on developing low-emissions technology.
Analysts largely dismiss this as bravado or wishful-thinking, but it is unclear how forceful and direct any pressure would be.
John Morton, a former senior director for energy and climate change in Barack Obama’s national security council and now a Washington DC-based partner in Pollination, says Biden has left no doubt in his first 10 days that he plans to do exactly what he promised on climate. His rhetoric before taking office included using “every tool of American foreign policy to push the rest of the world” to do more.
“Climate is a top priority for his government. I think it would be foolhardy to expect the Biden administration would not pursue it in its interactions with Australia. It will with every country, but particularly countries with significant means and significant fossil fuel and extractive industries,” Morton says.
“Australia obviously fits into both of these categories. I think Australia has to expect this will play a central role in how the US deals and hopes to interact collaboratively with it.”
Hare says it is unlikely US will accept a belated commitment to a net zero goal for 2050 as a substantial shift in Australia’s stance. “They’ll want to see an improvement in the 2030 target,” he says.
The international push for Australia to do more is not coming from the US alone. Morrison was embarrassed when rejected for a speaking slot at a leaders’ climate ambition summit in December due to Australia’s perceived lack of ambition, and is likely to come under similar pressure ahead of a G7 meeting in Cornwall in June.
The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, has invited the leaders of Australia, India and South Korea to attend every session of the summit in what is seen as an attempt to turn the forum into a D10 meeting of major democracies.
Diplomatic sources say Britain has made clear climate and energy will be a top priority at the summit, and it plans to push for commitments on both net zero emissions by 2050 and deeper cuts and financial commitments to help developing countries for 2030. With every G7 member having already adopted a carbon neutrality goal, the expectation is the three guests will be pressed to put their names to an ambitious communique.
Morrison appeared to pre-emptively respond to this push in an interview with the Australian last week in which he argued the political debate over whether to act on climate change was over, and it was now just a matter of how – and, by implication, when – emissions were reduced. He said he would tell the G7 and G20 that his priority was to take action by developing technology, not committing to new emissions goals.
It puts him directly at odds with Kerry, who stressed this week that all countries must increase ambition before meeting in Glasgow in November “or we will all fail”.
Howard Bamsey, a former Australian special envoy on climate change and executive director of the green climate fund, now an honorary professor at the Australian National University, says an underlying message from the US beyond the specifics is the extent to which its plans had been considered and mapped out before taking office.
In one sense, this isn’t surprising. Many of the people in key roles are former Obama administration officials, and Biden signalled his plans on climate change in advance in a way no other incoming president has.
Bamsey says people should be reassured that his administration is clear in what it is doing, and that Kerry has emphasised it was being realistic about what could be achieved.
It also means it is more likely to follow through.
“This isn’t a fly-by-night effort. This is a very serious change to government operations and now they have put it in a national security setting it is going to have a very profound effect globally,” Bamsey says. “It’s really hard to see the Australian government keep resisting.”