Climate of division, even in the Lucky Country

Unlucky in love: would it be crazy for Australia to give up the large amount of export income that comes from coal?

Australia was once dubbed ‘the lucky country’. The difficult and divisive issue of climate change may just have put paid to that, writes Geoff Kitney.

Travelling through Europe over the past month, it was easy to feel deeply pessimistic about the state of politics just about everywhere you went.

An unprecedentedly harsh summer had made toast of much of what is normally a verdant feast for the eyes. It looked more like Australia than Europe – a beige and withered landscape, dead and dying trees and crops, bushfires, water restrictions, sunburn and heat fatigue.

Normally a warm summer is celebrated. This one sparked fear.

The scientific consensus that the earth is warming, driven by man-made factors, has long been broadly accepted by Europeans.

The summer just passed has not only reinforced this view but sharply intensified it. The idea that anyone could deny that climate change is real and accelerating to almost everyone we spoke to was not only seen as incomprehensible but downright dangerous.

In recent years, as Australians travelling in Europe, it has not been unusual to be asked about Australia’s tough border protection. The Australian policy of refusing entry to asylum seekers and placing them in offshore detention centres has been noticed in Europe, mostly negatively, although less so since the 2015 refugee crisis.

This summer, however, another Australian policy had attracted attention. Reports of the fact that Australia has been wrestling with an increasingly divisive debate about climate change and Australia’s response to it have been puzzling those who have been reading them.

In a number of conversations we had as we travelled through seven European countries from Sweden in the north to Portugal in the south, people expressed surprise that Australia would be battling to reach a consensus on climate change.

In European countries where climate – at least before the summer of 2018 – was much less hostile than Australia’s and yet where there was a broad consensus that there needs to be action to deal with climate change, people asked how it could be that the issue was proving so difficult for Australia to reach agreement on how it should respond.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and has the world’s fourth largest coal reserves.

Just how difficult and divisive the issue has become in Australia has just been underlined by an upheaval in the governing conservative coalition (the Liberal and National Party).

The Liberal Party Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has just been dumped by his party after a bitter row over climate policy.

Turnbull was the seventh Australian prime minister in the past decade – a record of instability that compares with some of the world’s least stable democracies.

Since 2007, climate policy has bedevilled all the major Australian political parties. More than 11 years later, the issue is as raw and unresolved as it has ever been.

Despite what scientists say is incontrovertible evidence that climate change is contributing to greater Australian weather extremes – the most recent being a devastating drought that grips much of south-eastern Australia – resistance to climate change action seems stronger now than at any stage in the decade of political struggle over it.

The high point of Australian action on climate change was the introduction of a carbon tax in 2011 by a centre-left Labor government. But removing the carbon tax became the centrepiece of conservative policy and helped the conservative coalition to win a big majority in a 2013 general election, after which the tax (it was actually a carbon price rather than a tax) was scrapped.

Nevertheless Australia signed up in November 2016 to the Paris Climate Agreement and committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent below 2005 emission levels by 2030.

Since then, a battle has raged over how – and even whether – that target should be met.

There is even active debate over whether Australia should follow the United States and pull out of the Paris accord, prompting a warning from the European Union that this would jeopardise a free trade agreement now being negotiated between Australia and the EU.

The factors driving the political divisions in Australia are complex but boil down to this.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and has the world’s fourth largest coal reserves.

Since 2007, climate policy has bedevilled all the major Australian political parties. More than 11 years later, the issue is as raw and unresolved as it has ever been.

Conservatives with links to the industry argue that it would be crazy for Australia to give up the large amount of export income that comes from coal when there is still big demand for Australian coal, especially in China and India.

While Australia is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita, opponents of climate action argue that, because Australia has a small population which accounts for only 1.8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, curbing its emission would make energy prices for Australian households more expensive but make negligible global difference.

Some with more extreme views on the right of the political spectrum actually reject the science of climate change. One analyst argues that Australia has proportionately more climate change deniers in its parliamentary ranks than any other country, including the US. The consequence of this is that it has proven impossible to achieve an Australian consensus on climate change and climate action.

The internal splits and conflicts – and leadership upheaval – that have been created instead have proven destructive to public confidence in the Australian political system.

Australia has long had a relatively stable two-party political system, but in recent times – especially the past decade – the structure has been fracturing and political support has been haemorrhaging to the left and right fringes.

Populist politicians, backed by a chorus of right-wing media commentators, are gaining support and power. Complex policy in many areas is now struggling to gain support as more simple populist ideas win over public opinion.

As is the common thread in most western democracies, the middle-ground is losing the trust of ordinary people as mainstream political leaders struggle to deal with complex national problems. Those in the centre no longer are able to convince voters that the extremes either side of it represent danger rather than hope.

In Europe, the challenges for democratic governments seem to be multiplying. The immigration issue is ripping the fabric of communities, feeding the rise of populists with slogans but without answers.

Brexit approaches with the prospect of a disruptive and damaging mess at the end of it, which can only be bad for both the UK and the EU – and good for the populist trouble makers.

The alarming message from the current state of politics is that, if a country as lucky as Australia, with a history of political stability and with such bright prospects, cannot find the solution to public disillusionment and loss of faith in its democratic processes, who can?



Headline photo: Morwell open cut coal mine, Victoria
Credit: CSIRO Publishing
Supplied by CSIRO Science Image
Used under the terms and conditions of Creative Commons license