To those looking from outside at Australia’s response to climate change, we Aussies must seem to be a nation of idiots. Catastrophic weather events are destroying homes, livelihoods and biodiversity at unprecedented rates, yet Australia has the least ambitious climate plans of any developed nation.
With an election coming on Saturday (21 May) Scott Morrison, the prime minister, spruiks “the Australian Way”, which relies on technology to solve the problem “over time”. This absolves the government from doing anything and “back ends” our efforts so that most of them will be happening close to 2050. The Australian Way is in fact an Australian Crawl (as a rather comical swimming style is known). For a country recently devastated by the worst fires on record, and then by unprecedented floods, the Australian Way smacks of too little, far too late. The truth is that most Australians are acutely aware of the dangers of climate change and want swift action to combat it. Yet at the last election the conservative Liberal-National coalition government, which is committed to the Australian Way, was returned to power.
A lot has happened since that election. The nation has been seared by bushfires that were ten times as extensive as any before, and the pace of reconstruction has been so slow that about 90 per cent of the thousands who lost their homes remain homeless. Then came the floods, which have repeatedly devastated thousands more homes and lives. Even those living in the cities have not escaped — first enduring months of toxic smoke, then floods and inescapable mildew, and months without the sun. The beaches have been unusable, marred by ash then sewerage and other sources of polluted water.
For many, the Australia of 2022 bears no resemblance to the sunny, carefree country they grew up in. And things are set to rapidly get worse. Home ownership is the ultimate dream of many Australians, yet climate change looks set to make one in 25 homes uninsurable by 2030. Surely, you might think, it’s time for a change? Yet it’s by no means clear that a landslide of climate awareness will sweep the present government from power.
The conservative government won the 2019 election with a scare campaign. Addressing climate change, they said, would destroy the economy of entire regions as mines and power plants were closed down. And the uptake of electric vehicles would destroy the tradition of the “Australian weekend”. Any action to address climate change, in fact, was labelled as economy wrecking, a message that the polluting industries amplified. All of this was reinforced with a dog-whistled message to the “coal electorates” that if you don’t have coal, you’ve got nothing. This campaign has been running for decades, and because the Labor Party has proved unwilling to counter it with a policy platform offering a just transition to green energy, it has flourished. I happen to live in a coal electorate, so I know first-hand how effective the campaign has been.
Australia is the largest exporter of coal (by calorific value) and the largest exporter of natural gas. Huge investments have been made on the premise that these exports will continue for decades. The fact that customers might stop buying sooner because of concerns about climate change represents an existential threat to the companies involved. And with prices for fossil fuels at record levels, they have the money to spend on shaping public opinion.
As a climate activist, I’m enraged that climate change is the elephant in the room for the major parties. Among independents and minor parties, however, the issue is getting plenty of air-time. Some of the most interesting candidates are the-so-called “teal” independents (conservative blue, with a tinge of green). Across the country around a dozen are standing for election, most of them challenging conservatives in hitherto safe seats. These independents are mostly professionals, and all are concerned about climate change, corruption in government and social inequality. At the last election the first teal independent, Zali Steggall, beat the former prime minister Tony Abbott in one of the safest seats in the country. She proved indefatigable in parliament, introducing a much-needed climate change bill, and she looks certain to win again at this election.
Many of the teals come from impeccable conservative backgrounds. Kate Chaney is challenging the conservative incumbent in the seat of Curtin, Western Australia. Her grandfather, father and uncle were all prominent in the Liberal Party, but her family now proudly supports her as an independent. If Chaney and half a dozen other teals win, come Saturday they may well hold the balance of power. If that occurs, Australia looks set to embark on an aggressive, if belated, programme of action on climate change.
Tim Flannery is professorial fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne