Written by Ari Phillips
It’s election season in Australia and, unlike in the U.S., climate change is a major issue.
On September 7 Australians will choose between the two presidential candidates (they’re really just party leaders, per the parliamentary system, but they campaign like presidential candidates). Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister of Australia and the leader of the liberal-leaning Labor Party, is pitted against Tony Abbott, leader of the opposition center-right Liberal Party and head of the Coalition, a formal alliance of broadly center-right parties. Labor is fighting to stay in office after six tumultuous years, and is viewed as a slight underdog with most polls showing a close race.
The Situation On The Ground
The economy and climate change are two of the key issues going into the election. Climate change-related events have battered Australia so severely in recent years that many of them have their own names: the Big Dry, the Black Saturday Bushfires and the Angry Summer to name a few. In the last 10 months Australia has recorded its hottest day on record, hottest week on record, hottest month on record and hottest summer on record.
Climate change has started to impact everything from ski season to wine production Down Under. The economic toll of all this is severe. Combine that with the fact that Australia is a leading emitter of greenhouse gases (Australia’s per capita CO2 emissions are nearly twice the OECD average and more than four times the world average) due to its economic reliance on fossil fuels — especially coal and gas exports — and you get a perennial hot button issue.
In 2007, then newly-elected prime minister Rudd commissioned a report on how climate affected the Australian economy, released in 2008 as the Garnaut report. Labor put together climate legislation and joined the Kyoto protocol at the 2007 Bali UN climate summit. However the legislation stalled, and Rudd’s claim on the Labor party receded. Julia Gillard won a leadership battle over Rudd and then thinly prevailed over the Opposition in the 2010 elections. She did so with the votes of the Green MP and three Independents — and a promise to pursue climate legislation in 2011.
That year her strategy worked, when Australia passed a Carbon Reduction Pollution Scheme requiring polluters to pay for the atmospheric carbon pollution they create. After the legislation passed, a highly politicized debate ensued in which the Opposition government effectively labeled the plan a “carbon tax” which should be scrapped. According to John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute, a Sydney-based independent NGO focusing on climate change solutions, Australia is just now emerging from the shadow of that contentious debate.
Connor thinks concern for climate change in Australia is on the cusp of a comeback after suffering some serious setbacks, such as the failed 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference and the drawn-out national debate over carbon pricing. Recent research by the Institute has shown that Australians are perceiving climate change as a phenomenon impacting their lives right now, not in the future, due to recent extreme weather events, including Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. and droughts, floods and fires across the country. Their research has also shown that people are starting to also see climate change as a cost of living issue that impacts food prices, insurance premiums and other familiar economic concerns.
The political carbon scheme hubbub culminated last month when Rudd announced he was moving the “carbon tax” to an emissions trading scheme a year earlier than planned, next July, to ease cost of living pressure for families and help support the non-mining sectors of the economy. The Opposition was quick to point out that it would also add billions of dollars to the federal budget. For a good primer on the ins-and-outs of the early shift to an emissions trading scheme, see this article in The Age.
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