Australian Election Reflects Broad Support for Climate Action

“This is the long-overdue climate election Australia has been waiting for,” said climate scientist Joëlle Gergis.

Politics
Wildfires on Australia's coast in 2020
The Black Summer wildfires of 2019 and 2020 brought home the reality of climate change to Australia. Greg Nature Slade / Getty Images

Three years ago, Australia was supposed to have its “climate change election.” Polls had predicted a win for Labor, which had promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and nearly two-thirds of Australians agreed that the climate crisis was a major problem that required action. Despite this, the conservative Liberal-National coalition managed to cling on to power. 

This Saturday, however, it appears that voters have finally had enough of climate inaction. The opposition Labor Party won, and two groups that focused on climate issues – the Greens and the teal independents – received the biggest growth in support, as NBC News reported. 

“This is the long-overdue climate election Australia has been waiting for,” award-winning climate scientist and author from Australian National University Joëlle Gergis told The New York Times. “It was a defining moment in our nation’s history.”

Australia has emerged as something of a contradiction in recent years when it comes to the climate crisis. The country is extremely vulnerable to its impacts. Its iconic Great Barrier Reef has just suffered through its fourth mass-bleaching event in six years because of warmer than usual ocean temperatures and its devastating “black summer” wildfires of 2019 and 2020 depleted the ozone layer and killed or displaced nearly three billion animals. Yet the country has the highest coal emissions per capita of any nation on Earth, as The Guardian reported in November of 2021. At the UN COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison only promised to reduce emissions 35 percent by 2030, far below the promises made by other industrialized nations, as The New York Times reported at the time. He also did not join a global pledge to curb methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

Victorious Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese, who will take over as prime minister, has promised to reduce emissions by 43 percent by 2030 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, according to CNN. His party says it will achieve this partly by putting more pressure on companies to reduce emissions and partly by modernizing the country’s grid and promoting solar banks and community batteries. Albanese also said he would use climate action as an opportunity for economic growth, according to The New York Times.

“Together we can end the climate wars,” Albanese told supporters Saturday, as The New York Times reported. “Together we can take advantage of the opportunity for Australia to be a renewable energy superpower.”

Votes are still being counted, so it isn’t yet clear if Labor will have the 76 seats it needs in Australia’s lower house of parliament to secure a majority, BBC News reported. However, if it does not, the Greens and the independents who want even more radical climate action will have increased power to shape policy. 

The leader of the Greens Adam Bandt said that he would prioritize a ban on new coal and gas projects as a condition for a power-sharing agreement, and some independent leaders want emissions cuts of 60 percent by 2030, according to The New York Times.

“Parliament now effectively has a ‘supermajority’ in support of climate action, which can’t be ignored,” Ben Oquist, executive director of think-tank the Australia Institute, told NBC News. 

Whether this will be sufficient to actually avoid the worst impacts of climate change remains to be seen. Climate Analytics said that Labor’s policies were not enough to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and were more in line with limiting warming to two degrees, according to CNN. 

Further, the country has already put and pledged a lot of money towards fossil fuels. For example, it has already promised $39 billion to subsidies for oil and gas extraction, coal power, coal railways, ports and carbon capture technology, The New York Times reported.

That said, one positive development is that a broad swath of the public now clearly supports climate action.

“People no longer need to use their imaginations to try and understand what climate change looks like in this country,” Gergis told The New York Times. “Australians have been living the consequences of inaction.”

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