Australia has two pressing environmental problems: climate change and finding a leader who can tackle it. Large swathes of the country are suffering the effects of a seven-year drought, the bush fire season has hit those parts two months early, and the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef grows more severe each year. Yet late last month, the country’s attempts to make some modest changes to its energy policy to help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions blew up an internal storm in the ruling Liberal party that cost Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull his job.
To lose one prime minister to political fights about climate-change policy is unfortunate. Two would be careless, but Turnbull is actually the third Australian premier to fall in this way in under a decade. What is going on? And what does this turmoil say about attempts to rein in damaging carbon emissions elsewhere?
All politics is local, and Australian climate politics more so than most. Although Australian scientists are world leaders in several areas of climate science, including atmospheric monitoring of the Southern Hemisphere and understanding the causes of sea-level rise, the nation remains heavily reliant on coal for jobs and electricity. It mines more than half a billion tonnes of the stuff each year, and sells almost three-quarters of that abroad. The rest is burnt in Australian power stations, with electricity generation accounting for around one-third of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
It’s no coincidence that when Turnbull’s political colleague (and then-treasurer) Scott Morrison wanted to criticize environmentalists last year, he brought a lump of coal to parliament and spoke about it in glowing terms. Last week — after Turnbull confirmed he was quitting politics — his son complained about the “undue level of influence” of the coal lobby. Morrison, who replaced Turnbull as prime minister, has yet to announce the fate of the disputed policy, the National Energy Guarantee, which would force emissions generators to show they are meeting annual standards. He has at least said that the country will not withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, a move being pushed by some government members.
He should stand firm. Although the Paris agreement is weak compared with the scale of what is needed, it represents a political triumph and one that places so few binding demands on nations that any withdrawal would be little more than crowd-pleasing theatrics. And most of the crowd won’t be pleased: a June poll showed that 59% of Australians saw climate change as a pressing threat and one that needed action — the highest percentage in a decade.
A larger-scale survey last year of 38 countries showed a similar level of concern. But politicians in many of these places, even those fully behind the need for action on emissions, are also finding it difficult to follow through on pledges. Take Canada, where Justin Trudeau’s government last month announced it was scaling back plans for a carbon tax. Last week, Nicolas Hulot, the French environment minister, resigned, claiming that governments around the world are not taking sufficient steps to tackle green issues such as climate change. And the reckless stance of US President Donald Trump continues to erode climate regulations and embolden climate sceptics. New Zealand, for one, still has ambitions for emissions-reducing laws, but many of the other promises the country made in Paris — including actual cuts to carbon emissions and boosts in foreign aid to help poorer countries adapt — are weakening under political pressure.
Many of those poorer countries are on the front line and will suffer heavily as the weather worsens. So will Australia. Droughts there are projected to increase in length and severity as a result of climate change. Heatwaves, floods and bush fires are also linked to global warming, and are predicted to become more common and more extreme. The country’s island neighbours in the Pacific are likely to be inundated as sea levels rise. As a result, Australia, whose draconian refugee policy is a source of shame to many citizens, is likely to face an increase in climate refugees.
That these topics are now routinely debated amid mounting public concern about global warming is a victory of sorts for scientists, who must continue their efforts to make the case for action, and to research and speak out about the consequences. And although the current political drama in Australia paints a depressing picture, there is a glimmer of hope. A decade after the financial crash wrested away attention and momentum, climate change is once again at the top of the political agenda.
Things can change quickly in politics, and Australia has a chance to force that change. Already the opposition Labor party has promised a new emissions-reduction scheme. And next year, the country will again vote on its leader. For whoever wins that election, curbing climate change should be at the top of their to-do list — and they must be given the chance to hang around long enough to do so.