Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?

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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.

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adam

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  1. James - December 5, 2007

    I believe that Americans will kick out the anti-environmental wackos that have plundered our federal government and skewered our laws. Nearly every candidate in the coming presidential election has spoken to climate change and are considerably more interested in responding, which is dramatically different from the past 30 years of executive administrations.

  2. Anon - December 5, 2007

    Well those European nations that seem to have suffering economies for some reason seem to be steadily increasing in strength against the Dollar. We are being left behind as other nations progress and advance their societies.

    Everyone says that the Kyoto protocol will hurt our economy, obviously what we are doing now is not working and we need to change. Change can be stressful, but good in the long run: survival of the fittest.

  3. Monty - December 5, 2007

    First, the disclaimer that most interpretations of political results are going to be misleading because there are so many factors involved. Anyone who has followed the last few Australian elections will understand the complications.
    That said, the environment is a major factor in the election because Australia is already feeling the results. The weather patterns in recent years have caused major hardship, and many attribute the changes to climate change. Adding to the issue is that Australians per capita release more CO2 than citizens of any country, and they recognize any potential climate change on their ‘island’ is a problem of their own making.
    Regardless of the changes in Australia, changes in the States were already set in motion. There may have been an attempt to downplay the role of humans in climate change, but we are fortunate that the majority of Americans have already accepted that we must make changes. That will not be the number one item in the next election, but it will be in the top five, and ultimately will mean that our next Congress and President will need to address the issue.
    Will that eventually mean most Americans will give up some conveniences to reduce their carbon footprint? Will most Australians? I think we are still (mostly) at the stage where citizens of nearly all countries point their finger at others and say how their lifestyle is better than so-and-so. Perhaps in the coming years we stop evaluating others and start focusing on the changes we can make individually.

  4. Verticalbackyard - December 5, 2007

    Two issues significant issues were overlooked Adam’s lead article:

    1. The Howard government removed a lot of labor protetction laws and regulation, to the point of union-busting. Many changes were for the good – labor laws were very onerous for small business. But Australia traditionally has a very unionized labor force (like many European countries), the majority of blue and gray collar workers wanted their lost rights and benefits restored, and so turned back to the Labor party in this last election.

    2. Many parts of Australia continue to be in a prolonged drought which is impacting farming and ranching -and- municipal water supplies. (Google it, e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/australia/story/0,,1941942,00.html) Australia is the only developed nation I know of with significant domestic rainwater recapture programs – Aussies will walk you down and show your their rainwater capture tank systems in their back yard or under their house.

    So Australians are MUCH more conscious of climate change issues than most US residents, to the point where Aussies tolerate a remarkable amount of regulation about new building requirements, regulations on trimming their trees, and other things that would horrify the “private property rights” mindset of people in the US West where I live.

    Sure, these aren’t the only factors. But Australians are much more global in their views, and much more ecology/climate change oriented than most people in the US.

    (I’m Aussie-born, have lived in the US the last 30 years, I was back there just before the election for a few weeks. I didn’t get everyone’s perspective, but I certainy heard a number of views.)

  5. Adam Stein - December 5, 2007

    Thanks for the info. I’ve always assumed that awareness is much higher in Australia than here, mostly because climate change is such a dire issue for Australians. But one thing I’ve never quite understood: given the general level of awareness, why was Howard so opposed? Was it just a business lobby thing?

  6. Verticalbackyard - December 5, 2007

    Adam, if you were responding to my comments, well, I’m no political analyst, and I don’t follow Aussie politics routinely.

    My best guess is that Howard’s opposition to Kyoto was rooted in the importance of Australian mining and ore exports. Australia has huge coal and mineral ore reserves, and their export revenues have underpinned the robustness of the Aussie economy while other industries were faltering or suffering. (Australia provides the Japanese and Chinese a significant part of the resources they use to build those products you get in Best Buy and WalMart.) Also, Australia generates most of it’s electric power from coal (I’m from a coal mining region, hydroelectric is significant only in some regions). To honor Kyoto he would have had to start mandating cleaner generation. Finally, and less important, Howard is a notorious George Bush lackey, so he may have had some sense of solidarity with W in his refusal to endorse Kyoto.

    (US-style lobbying doesn’t seem to happen much in Australia. Business leaders there tend to deal more directly with politicians. But perhaps lobbying is just hidden better.)

    One additional reason that Aussies have more ecological sensitivity: soil salinization has ruined many of the irrigation projects that they were once so proud of. e.g http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salinity_in_Australia

  7. Adam Stein - December 5, 2007

    Thanks, Vert. Interesting. Also the reason I’m reluctant to comment on domestic politics in other countries. It’s just too easy to oversimplify.

  8. Michael - December 6, 2007

    …couple of questions…

    Is Kyoto equitable worldwide?

    Is climate change caused by humans…or is the universe descretely more powerful than we think?

    The notion that we clean the air we breath, the water we drink, and, the soil that provideds food shouldn’t be lost on a single human. But some…(many) have profited from past disregard, and those rising economies want the same oppoertunity. And despite my personal environmental achievments and aspirations, I’m not totally sure human activity is spinning the global warming ball…ask me in 500 years…

  9. Verticalbackyard - December 7, 2007

    On the second question, there -is- evidence that we are in a long-term solar cycle which will contribute to global warming. Arguments about whether warming is due to solar or human impact won’t resolve anything, and seem to overlook the blinding possibility that it could be both!

    While everyone is arguing about cause, we have no idea if we can turn the situation around by human management, and if we can, what timeline we are talking about. So, while we argue and tinker, I expect that coastal cities and low-lying islands will drown in this century. Nothing is being done to prepare, and the economic cost will make Katrina look like pocket change.

    (Did I mention I live in the mountains?)

  10. Adam Stein - December 7, 2007

    Arguments about whether warming is due to solar or human impact won’t resolve anything, and seem to overlook the blinding possibility that it could be both!
    Er…this is sort of a misleading characterization of the matter. Climate scientists don’t bicker over whether warming is caused by solar or human impact. Both the sun and anthropogenic carbon emissions are among the many forcings that affect global temperature. So of course both play a role. But scientists are also pretty clear that the sun is not the major factor behind the current warming trend. This isn’t an “argument” so much as an empirically supported result.

  11. Verticalbackyard - December 9, 2007

    I think we agree. I was in the context of the misdirection that politicians and energy companies have engaged in, not in the context of the science. Does anyone disagree that there’s still plenty of denial about human causes of global warming? I know a number of people who are either:
    1. in denial about global warming at all, or
    2. adamant that human activities are not the cause (and so seek any other explanation, especially solar activity)

    My point remains that while we are seeing effect, we are still arguing cause, and not getting to solution. It’s like arguing about how the fire started, instead of calling fire brigade.

    Didn’t quite mean to get into this much dialog, but thanks for the opportunity.

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