Wednesday, February 28

Australia’s ‘climate election’ shows shifting priority for voters

One topic dominated Australia’s election: climate change.

Following a string of climate-related catastrophes in recent years, Australian voters this weekend returned the opposition Labor Party to power, with incoming Prime Minister Anthony Albanese vowing to “end the climate wars” and turn Australia into a “renewable energy superpower.”

Analysts said the result showed how the public is increasingly demanding great climate commitments from leaders in a shift that could hold lessons for lawmakers in other developed countries.

“This was the climate change election for Australia,” said Ben Oquist, executive director of the Australia Institute, an independent think tank based in Canberra, the capital of Australia.

“A decade of electoral frustration spilled over into a wave of support for candidates that supported stronger climate action,” he said.

Flood in Maryborough in Queensland, Australia, on Feb. 28.Queensland Police via AFP – Getty Images

Oquist pointed out that although Albanese’s Labor Party had won a narrow majority to form the next government, it was the Greens and the so-called Teal independents — both of whom campaigned on strong climate action — who received the biggest bump in support.

“Parliament now effectively has a ‘supermajority’ in support of climate action, which can’t be ignored,” he said.

Although Australia has been hit with devastating wildfires, drought and flooding in recent years, it is viewed as something of a laggard in terms of climate commitments.

Its per-capita carbon emissions dwarf those of the European Union, and its current plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2030 ranks among the least ambitious of any developed economy.

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Outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeatedly resisted calls for quicker decarbonization and once memorably brought a lump of coal into Parliament to demonstrate his commitment to fossil fuels.

Under Albanese, Australia now plans a 43 percent emissions reduction this decade and is reportedly seeking to host a United Nations climate conference in 2024.

Bill Hare, CEO and senior scientist at the Climate Analytics think tank, said Saturday’s result showed a “transformation across the political spectrum” in terms of voters’ priorities.

“There’s been a shift away from both of the two main parties, and many people have voted for the Greens and the teal independents,” he said. “That is reflecting the groundswell of opinion that the two main parties have not been taking climate change seriously enough.”

Polling in the lead-up showed that 8 out of 10 Australians wanted great climate action from the government, and 70 percent of respondents said they believe climate change was already impacting the country. “Environment” was the most-mentioned issue on social media during the campaign, ahead of the economy and corruption.

Hare said while not every Australian was convinced that climate change constituted a domestic emergency, the issue received greater attention given increasing energy costs.

“There is also a fear that Australia will miss out on the economic opportunities provided by the zero-carbon transition and that we will suffer from the decline of the fossil fuel export market,” he said.

Fossil fuels account for nearly a quarter of Australia’s exports, and in 2019 the country became the largest exporter by volume of natural gas. But most renewable energy has never been cheaper, and Hare said regions of Australia with the largest share of renewables in their energy mix were experiencing the lowest prices.

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Homes Destroyed As Bushfires Continue Across Perth Hills
Fire crews control bush fires in Perth, Australia, on Feb. 1, 2021.Paul Kane/Getty Images

Oquist said Labor’s win would bring Australia “closer to the climate policies of the rest of the world.”

In particular, he said the result would likely boost relations between Australia and Pacific island states, for which climate change is an existential threat. Incoming Foreign Minister Penny Wong issued to video address to Pacific countries promising to “stand shoulder to shoulder with you as we address the climate crisis.”

Hare said other countries, particularly those in which Rupert Murdoch’s media empire operates, could learn from how the public formed its opinions during the campaign.

“If you’ve followed this vote, you’ll know how dominant the Murdoch media is here,” he said.

“While the Australian public has been influenced by that for some time but appears to have thrown it aside and found new sources of information,” Hare said. “We don’t have to believe that the Murdoch press controls public opinion.”

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