The late Peter Coleman recalled in his memoirs that around the time when the Japanese were bombing Darwin, Sydney’s young bohemians would meet at Sherry’s coffee shop in Pitt Street to discuss matters more important than the war.
Last week, as G7 leaders considered united action to counter the threat of Communist China, the ABC insisted climate change was the real issue. The Australian Prime Minister, even more than the Chinese President, was the recalcitrant who should be brought into line.
David Speers’ opening line on Insiders set the tone for last Sunday’s discussion on which the Greens’ Adam Bandt was the star turn. “The Prime Minister is rallying leaders of the world’s greatest democracies to step up on China, but he remains out of step with his counterparts on climate targets,” said Speers. Bandt accused the government of warmongering and urged the US and Europe to punish Australia’s supposed belligerence with trade tariffs.
Any hope that the pandemic might bring the intellectual left to its senses was extinguished in the first weeks of the outbreak. Having escalated the threat of global warming from one of many policy challenges to pose a threat to human existence, everything else shrank in importance in the minds of the intelligentsia.
As Niall Ferguson reminds us in Doom: The Politics of Catastrophism, at the start of Covid-19’s fateful global tour in January 2020, the World Economic Forum in Davos was focused on the wrong worry. The overwhelming theme at Davos was climate change while environmental responsibility dominated discussions on corporate boards. Little did they know that China was about to make its biggest contribution to reducing carbon dioxide to date through a pandemic that would disrupt global energy consumption patterns. Daily global CO2 reductions decreased by an estimated 17 per cent in April 2020.
Meeting a target of net-zero emissions by 2050, however, will require a more sustained contribution than that from the world’s largest carbon emitter. That is unlikely to happen. Since the Chinese administration has no intention of playing by the rules of international law, trade or commerce, we’d be nuts to imagine it would ever be a trusted partner in a global agreement on climate change.
A safer prediction is that China will continue to pose a real and potentially existential threat to free and open societies as it seeks to replace the rules-based international order with the survival of the fittest. The Chinese Communist Party has no qualms about pursuing its objectives at the expense of other nations and seeks geopolitical dominance over the US and its allies.
As a result, Australia is a participant in a cold war not of its making. Yet West Australian Premier Mark McGowan insists we are at fault. His recent rebuke of the federal government’s rhetoric was embraced by the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Zhao Lijian. “The Australian government should heed these constructive opinions,” Zhao said. “Abandon the cold war mentality and ideological bias, earnestly uphold the principle of mutual respect and equal treatment.” The projection of one’s own faults on to others is a classic symptom of a narcissistic personality. Narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths deny, bully, blame and confuse to make others feel bad and submit to their own demands. I’m not saying McGowan is any of those things, but for the benefit of those such as McGowan who still want to believe that China under its current leadership is a trustworthy partner on the journey to peace and prosperity, let us summarise recent events.
The most likely origin of the pandemic is a Chinese laboratory where scientists extract animal viruses and attempt to turn them into offensive weapons. The second-most likely explanation, albeit far less likely than the lab theory, is the transmission of a virus from bats to humans in a country that failed to observe the universal protocols that prevent human consumption of wild animals. By the time China alerted the world on December 31, 2020, the virus had been detected in humans for weeks and possibly months. The cover-up persisted into January as international flights continued to leave Wuhan, and the Chinese authorities insisted there had been no evidence of human to human transmission.
The distraction of the pandemic has been exploited by China to tighten its authoritarian grip at home and extend its influence abroad. Hong Kong has been robbed of the last vestiges of sovereignty while the Covid-19 recession has pushed some unthinking foreign governments further into the Belt and Road debt trap.
Chinese falsehoods and obfuscation have ensured that the pandemic has claimed more victims than it would have done and worsened the economic pain in almost every country in the world. Even today, the Chinese authorities deny responsibility.
The firming of resolve against China at the G7-plus meeting last week suggests that democratic nations have not entirely forgotten the lessons of the first Cold War. Yet the equivocation of the progressive left remains a persistent threat, notably in the US, where the resolve of the Biden administration is less than clear thanks to the waning of self-belief among progressive Democrats with influential roles in the administration.
The muted response to Beijing’s swallowing of Hong Kong, the incomprehensible decision to resume talks with Iran and a readiness to underplay the significance of cyber attacks from Russia betrayed an instinct to seek accommodation with tyrants, no matter what the threat.
In the minds of those who see climate change as the overwhelming threat to humanity, appeasement makes sense. To them, Western economic and industrial decline is the solution, not the problem. Rather than make an enemy of China and Russia, we should be recruiting them as allies in the battle to save the planet.
Wiser heads who see the challenge of global warming in less apocalyptic terms are entitled to fear the direction in which such muddle-headed thinking takes us, smoothing the ascendancy of an autocratic state that views liberal democracy with contempt.
Nick Cater is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre.