Climate Change Is a Real Problem in Australia. So Why Did They Elect a Leader Who Might Not Believe in It?

Incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott ran on a campaign against the carbon tax put in place by his predecessor.

A bush fire lights up Kimberly, a region in western Australia. (Photo: John Crux / Getty)

Sep 13, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A climate blogger, RL is chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus.

Australia, long considered the canary in the coalmine of climate change, went to the polls last weekend, and the biggest loser was the environment.

The Liberal Party—which is actually the most conservative of Australia’s mainstream political parties—trounced the outgoing Labor party. Incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott ran on a campaign against the carbon tax put in place by the Labor-led government, among other issues.

How big a loss is this for the climate movement in a country that has been hit with more than its fair share of droughts, floods, wildfires, and insane heatwaves?

Graham Readfearn, a journalist for The Guardian, tells TakePart, “campaigners fear it’s going to be carnage.”

In response to the Labor Party’s big loss, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal editorialized against “the faddish politics of climate change” and the political danger of backing a carbon tax in America. Murdoch also controls about 60 to 70 percent of Australian media, and Murdoch himself tweeted his preference for Abbott.

However, the media anti-carbon-tax rhetoric may not have swung the election.

Media Matters For America responds: “Despite The Wall Street Journal's claim, voters were probably not sending a message about carbon policy. Only 37 percent of Australians support eliminating the carbon tax and replacing it with the policies of Abbott and the Coalition. The tax didn't even break voters' top three concerns, with those spots going to concerns about the economy, asylum seekers, and health care. In fact, most Australians think the country's climate policies should remain the same or stronger.”

Instead, Australian voters seemed to be more annoyed by the Labor government’s flip-flop on the carbon tax than on the tax itself.

Readfearn also notes that “neither party dared to tackle the issue of Australia's booming coal and gas export industry—that's where most of Australia's emissions actually come from.” Australia only has 22.7 million people—half the population of California—but is among the world’s top per-capita carbon polluters, thanks to export of its vast stores of coal to China and other Asian countries. Abbott has pledged to repeal a tax on coal and iron ore mining businesses.

And the Liberal party, already dubbed the “Abbattoir,” is showing signs of intolerance toward climate policy. Readfearn tells TakePart: “We know already that the Abbott government is planning to cut swathes through the climate change functions of Federal Government agencies—victims are likely to include the Climate Change Authority which was charged with setting targets and the Climate Commission, a public outreach group that was helping to educate the public on the state of the science.” And the Australian Broadcasting Company is reporting on plans to axe a clean energy bank that had funded loans to wind farm and solar panel technologies.

“Then we have the spectre of climate science denial that's never far from Abbott's team,” says Readfearn. Nick Minchin, a Liberal party powerbroker who will likely to be appointed as Australia's New York consul-general, denies human-caused climate change is anything to worry about, and sees the environment issue as a cover for socialism. Abbott, on the other hand, claims to accept the science after previously calling it "crap."

But the net effect of the carbon rhetoric may be a big “meh.”

Labor’s “polluter pays” carbon tax will be replaced with Abbott’s more expensive “taxpayer pays” in which taxpayer funds will pay for emissions mitigation at lowest cost within Australia. Both systems promise to reduce the country’s emissions by a paltry five percent by 2020.

So the carbon tax may go, but Australia’s carbon policy remains about the same.