Why Australia is Approaching a ‘Climate Change’ Election

Image Credit: Tim J Keegan, CC BY-SA 2.0

This weekend, Australia will have a federal election. My country will vote, not on an individual leader, but on the party that will form government for the next 3-4 years. We’ve been led by the conservative Liberals (yes, the right-wing party are called the Liberals, it’s stupid) since 2013, and that time in Australia has not been kind to the environment. A tax on carbon was repealed almost as soon as it was implemented, prioritising large businesses has caused potentially irreversible damage to iconic ecosystems around the country, and a disregard for the potential impacts of climate change have been a trademark of the present government.

But in that time, climate movements have swept the globe, and concern for environmental issues seems to have risen among the Australian public. There have been inspiring strikes by primary school students who are understandably concerned about their future, the March for Science has become an annual event, and despite misinformation being spread by the federal government, there has been a marked rise in concern about the impacts of climate change. Climate change was the most searched political issue for the first 2 weeks of May in Australia, and Australian support for climate action is at its highest level in a decade.

But to step away from political concerns for a second, let’s take a second to examine why Australians need to be more concerned about climate change than the rest of the world, starting by looking it its direct effect on people. An already warm country has seen significant rises in temperature, with the most recent summer our hottest on record, 2.14 degrees above the long-term average. My home state of Victoria can expect an increase in the length and severity of an already dangerous bushfire season above that which it has already experienced, dry lightning storms have started hitting Tasmania, cyclones and flash floods threaten our tropical areas, not to mention the horrendous effects of extended periods of drought on Australia’s farming community. I totally get why Australians now rate climate change as the biggest threat to the country’s vital interests.

I don’t want to dwell on how bad things could get for Australia, and I think this excerpt from a Richard Flanagan article does the job well enough, written in the midst of last summer.

What has become clear over these last four weeks across this vast, beautiful land of Australia is that a way of life is on the edge of vanishing. Australian summers, once a time of innocent pleasure, now are to be feared, to be anticipated not with joy but with dread, a time of discomfort, distress and, for some, fear that lasts not a day or a night but weeks and months. Power grids collapse, dying rivers vomit huge fish kills, while in the north, in Townsville, there are unprecedented floods, and in the south heat so extreme it pushes at the very edge of liveability has become everyday.

In addition to this, Australia’s tourism industry will take hits it simply can’t recover from. Global bleaching events in 2016 and then more localised events in 2017 saw half of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef undergo bleaching, with some corals dying directly from heat stress (if that doesn’t sound worse, it’s basically the difference between dying from thirst in a desert and being cooked alive in one). Heritage forests in Tasmania and Victoria are suffering from an increase in wildfire and reductions in supplies of freshwater, and Australia saw catastrophic fires in tropical forests which had been left vulnerable to fire by cyclones. These are now trends that are practically unstoppable.

Whilst many Australian ecosystems rely in irregular fires, and alarming increase in temperatures may result in a longer and more severe fire season

Whilst many Australian ecosystems rely in irregular fires, and alarming increase in temperatures may result in a longer and more severe fire season (Image Credut: Lithgowlights, CC BY-SA 3.0)

But if you’re like me and get tired of a human-focussed narrative when talking about the effects of climate change, the story is even bleaker. All the disasters mentioned above have obvious effects on our native species. This year saw the first known extinction as a direct result of climate change, with Australia’s Bramble Cay Melomys biting the dust. And when compounded with extensive deforestation due to logging and dumping of dredging sludge on the Great Barrier Reef, increased warming in Australia makes the future for our ecosystems horrendous.  We’ve already seen mass mortalities in Australia’s freshwater fish and kangaroos this past year. Given the uniqueness of Australia’s fauna and flora, it’s a pretty devastating tale.

So back to what the present government has done about this.

SHIT. ALL. Yes, this is the point where I get emotional.

No, I take that back. They’ve probably exacerbated the problems at hand. They’ve spread a great deal of misinformation about the impact of climate change and Australia’s role in stopping it, including crippling Australian scientific institutions like the CSIRO (see this excellent piece by the Climate Council). Their initial response in 2013 was to abolish the Climate Commission, and following that election the country didn’t have a Minister for Science for 15 months. Recently, the Prime Minister has affirmed his commitment to reduce carbon emissions to 26% of our 2005 levels by 2030, nowhere near what a country with our access to solar energy should be aiming for. My absolute least favourite example are his words at the recent party campaign launch, where he maintained that “We are doing our bit [on climate change,] as we should as a global citizen, but I’m not going to do it and put our kids economic future at risk,”. Evoking the future of a generation who has shown how much they care about the state of the planet as a reason to avoid effective climate change action is revolting.

The good news is that Australia’s two other major parties have improved attitudes towards climate change. If you’re Australian, I won’t give advice on who people should vote for here (though it’s pretty obvious at this stage who I would tell you NOT to vote for). But you can check out the policies of the major parties at the links below.

The Climate Council’s Factsheet on the Climate Policies of the Major Australian Political Parties

The Guardian: The Climate Change Election – Where Do The Parties Stand On The Environment

Australia has what is essentially a two-party system, with an ongoing coalition of the Liberal party and the National party going up against the Labor party. Our Greens party, which is much more active regarding environmental degradation, has a much smaller voice. But one encouraging facet of Australian politics is that by voting for a smaller party, the vote isn’t wasted. We vote using preferences, so even if our first choice gets no other votes (although they will receive extra financial support at the next election), by preferencing one of the two main parties we still essentially ‘vote ‘ for one of them. If you’re confused by this, and don’t mind a bit of vulgar language, check out the video below, which explains it better than I can.

As an Australian living overseas, I’ve often felt pretty helpless over the last 6 years. Here’s hoping we all feel a tiny bit more hopeful in a week’s time.