Update: Australia just now signed the Kyoto Protocol. The United States is now the only developed nation not to have ratified the treaty.
I’ve been avoiding blogging about the election in Australia because…I don’t know the first thing about Australian electoral politics, and commenting on the results mostly seems like a good way to make a fool of myself. That said, it’s an interesting story, so here goes.
Australia has long provided a sort of antipodal echo to the baleful state of climate change politics in the U.S. Consider: Australia and the U.S. are the only two developed countries to refuse the Kyoto Protocol. Both countries are led by federal governments that seek to duck the climate change issue entirely. Both countries have seen a remarkable number of state and regional initiatives aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, in direct opposition to the policy of the federal government. And in both countries a series of dire weather-related events have increased the visibility and urgency of the issue among an alarmed public.
About a week ago, the parallel ended. Australian voters threw out incumbent Prime Minister John Howard, threw out Howard’s center-right political party, and installed Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd as their new head. Climate change has been cited as one of the primary causes of the political upheaval. Subsequent to the election, Howard’s party has all but collapsed, suffering a wave of retirements.
The new government has moved swiftly to redress the previous government’s environmental inaction. Australia will ratify Kyoto immediately; set aggressive renewable energy targets; and offer a raft of new funds to for clean energy and efficiency measures.
What does this portend for the U.S. election? The smart money says: nothing. Australia and the U.S. are obviously quite different places, certain similarities aside, and conventional wisdom holds — correctly — that American voters don’t strongly consider environmental issues at the ballot box.
I confess, though, that I’m a bit more optimistic than my peers on this last point. In Australia, the climate change issue took on prominence principally because it had symbolic resonance (or so I’ve read). It came to be seen a sign that the existing government was unable or unwilling to deal with the challenges facing the country.
A similar dynamic could emerge in the U.S. Environmentalists often worry over the conflation of energy independence and climate change as political issues, because of the fraught issues of coal and nuclear power. But I tend to think that on balance, the overlap is a good thing. Both issues at their core force us to confront the question of how we can support our economy in a way that keeps us both safe and prosperous. Both rule out the status quo as a viable choice.
Other environmental issues just don’t strike as deeply on such an existential level for most voters. Politics at the national level is as much about symbols as about policy. To the extent that climate change can become a symbol for such 21st-century challenges, perhaps Australia really will be a bellwether for the U.S.
Photo available under Creative Commons license from Flickr user safaris.