How Climate Change Fits in the Australian Elections

What do you do when your country feels some of the worst calamities of climate change but also enriches itself from the very fossil fuels that are responsible for climate change?

Few face that question more acutely than Australians.

They faced it when they went to the polls three years ago. They’re facing it again now. National elections are scheduled a week from Saturday, on May 21.

What’s changed? I asked my colleague, The Times Sydney bureau chief, Damien Cave. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Hi Damien. I hear Australians are looking for answers on climate change on Google in the run-up to these elections. What do you make of that?

Well, it’s been a tough three years. The intense, overwhelming bush fires of 2020. Two years of La Niña rains. Another round of bleaching for the Great Barrier Reef.

Australians are probably Googling for solutions because they’re seeing more examples of climate change in their lives and wondering: When and how are we supposed to deal with this? They’re Googling inflation more often, though.

Compared to other issues, how much does climate matter to voters?

Polls show that climate is not necessarily the top issue for most voters. But it does seem like a low-level and constant source of anxiety, not just because of all the extreme weather we’ve been having, but also because Australians fear that they are losing out on an economic opportunity.

Last year, for example, I did a big article on Australia’s richest man, a mining baron named Andrew Forrest, making a big push into hydrogen. I spent a lot of time talking to iron ore miners for that article and what I heard again and again was: “Australia needs to change fast, or else we’re going to lose out.”

Many Australians can see that — in a country full of minerals, with some of the best solar and wind potential in the world — not making climate change a priority means risking the loss of good paying jobs to other countries with a clearer plan for the future. Australia is currently the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world, but it can be a renewable energy superpower if it decides to be, and a growing number of Australians seem to recognize that.

What’s the current government’s stance on climate?

It has done very little to suggest that it recognizes climate change as a clear and immediate danger in need of a major shift in policy. Last year, just before the international climate talks in Glasgow, it reluctantly agreed to a net-zero-by-2050 target, meaning that it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and make up for what it couldn’t remove with things like tree planting projects. It’s little more than a pledge. There’s not really a plan on how to get there.

That’s out of touch with most Australians. Polls show a majority would like to see their government tackle climate change more aggressively.

Is the governing conservative coalition still banking on coal?

Yes, and the opposition isn’t far behind. Anthony Albanese, the Labor leader fighting to become prime minister, said last month that a Labor government would support new coal mines, matching the pro-mining stance of the conservative Liberal-National coalition that’s now in power. It’s partly an effort to keep the support of blue-collar workers, but it’s also an attempt to avoid a repeat of what happened in the 2019 election when Labor lost over its apparent opposition to a big new coal mine in the state of Queensland. You wrote about that. It’s owned by the Indian conglomerate Adani, and that mine has since started exporting coal.

Coal is still king in many of the districts needed to win Australia’s election.

A handful of independents ran on climate issues in 2019. I met some of them when I went to Australia in the run-up to the last elections. What’s different now?

Well, there are more independents running. Around 25 of them. Most are professional women — lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs — who have been recruited by community groups eager to break the two-party gridlock on climate change.

They’re a loosely affiliated group, though they’re getting more coordinated. There’s more money coming their way from groups like Climate 200, which is essentially an Australian version of a political action committee. And there’s more energy. Some of their campaigns have thousands of volunteers, far more than the major party incumbents.

The question, of course, is still whether they have enough support to win more than a seat or two.

If the election is close, as is expected, the independents may be kingmakers. They may be the ones who decide whether to form a government with Labor or the Liberal-National coalition.

That could change Australian climate policy very quickly.

I’m puzzled by one thing: If climate risk isn’t a top election issue in a country as vulnerable as Australia, can it be a top election issue anywhere?

One of the lessons from Australia, I think, is that climate change can be a very important political issue even if it doesn’t end up at the top of voters’ most urgent concerns. Here, it’s a constant, a low-level hum just below the political shouting.

What we’ve seen over the past few years is that if the major parties don’t tackle climate change, there’s going to be a backlash that could threaten their own hold on power. The independents are the big story of this year’s campaign. I have an article coming soon about their efforts, but whether they win or lose, they’ve put both parties on edge. They’ve changed the conversation because they are the public face of a grass-roots movement that is trying to pull the country back to the political center and focus on pragmatic solutions to big problems. Chief among them is the problem of climate change.

Damien and the rest of our team in Australia will be following the final days of the campaign and next week’s vote result. You can get news and analysis here.

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Flares burning in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria in 2021.Credit…Sunday Alamba/Associated PressEssential news from The TimesMessy business: Some oil giants, in an effort to meet climate pledges, are transferring their dirtiest wells to smaller operations with even fewer climate safeguards.

Before you go: Calculate your personal inflation ratePrices are rising at the highest pace in four decades, but not everyone experiences the effects of inflation in the same way. It depends on a range of individual circumstances. So, our colleagues on the Times business desk created an interactive calculator to estimate your personal inflation rate. You just need to answer seven easy questions. It turns out, a lot of the things that are bad for the climate — like driving, heating your home with oil and eating a lot of meat — also have an outsize effect on inflation. You can try the calculator here.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Tuesday.

Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.

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