Want to See the Future of Climate Politics? Look to Australia.

Want to See the Future of Climate Politics? Look to Australia.

Want to See the Future of Climate Politics? Look to Australia.

The way in which climate concerns have occupied Australians’ politics should serve as a warning to American Democrats. 

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Sydney, Australia—Three months after a “rain bomb” detonated over the city of Brisbane—after the relentless floods had drowned entire suburbs, after 60,000 tons of water-logged trash had been pulled from the wreckage, after a volunteer “mud army” had been deployed to scrape the sludge from the streets, after the actuaries had appraised the total damage at $3.35 billion—a dam finally broke in Australian politics.

Veteran Aussie commentators are calling last weekend’s federal election the biggest political realignment in living memory. The incumbent Liberal-National Coalition—a devil’s bargain between the center and far right that has held power since 2013—tried everything they could to distract voters from the elephant in the room. It tried importing American culture wars by slandering trans athletes to manufacture a backlash. It tried stoking xenophobia by sending texts on election day with vague warnings of an “illegal boat en route to Australia.” All of its tactics fell flat. The public simply had bigger fish to fry: The 2020 bushfires had burned an area the size of Great Britain. A mass bleaching had ravaged over 90 percent of the Great Barrier Reef. Another rain bomb was forecast for Queensland. After a decade of government inaction, voters were ready to respond to their material interests. In district after district and poll after poll, Australians listed climate change as their number-one priority.

Dr. Monique Ryan, a neurologist who pulled an upset victory in a district that had been held by the conservatives since its advent in 1900, captured the mood of the electorate: “We started this campaign because we wanted action on climate change and we felt that it was the most important challenge of our time. It bloody well is. Our government was not listening to us. And so we have changed the government.”

“Bread and butter,” “kitchen table”—whatever metaphor you choose, the takeaway is clear: The climate issue is now deeply entwined with the way Australian voters view their future, their identity, and the quality of their everyday lives. To a certain breed of Washington operative—the sort of cynic whose political imagination has been winnowed down to the length of a TV news cycle—this is perhaps difficult to imagine. Received wisdom among Beltway consultants dictates that climate will always be too abstract to sway political consciousness: the domain of bleeding hearts and do-gooders, not “everyday American voters.”

What has happened in Australia belies that truism and offers a window into what could change in America as the climate crisis comes crashing into a greater portion of the electorate.

In Australia, a governing party that failed to address the crisis—whose prime minister once brought a lump of coal to Parliament, brandishing it like some shamanic talisman—was swept out of office as abruptly and decisively as if it’d been caught in the Brisbane floodwaters (which, in essence, it had been).

Chastened by the polling data on climate, some members of the Liberal-National Coalition tried to temper their message in the final weeks of the campaign, silencing the outright climate deniers in their ranks, while offering a few talking points on clean energy. Australians hungry for action weren’t appeased by their posturing. On election day, voters abandoned the long-dominant Coalition in record numbers.

But neither did they run full tilt into the arms of the opposition Labor Party, who has tread carefully on the climate issue and actually saw its primary vote share decrease since the last election. Instead, voters flocked in record numbers to the parties whose urgency matched their own: the Greens, who trebled their representation in Parliament overnight, and the so-called Teal Independents, an all-female slate of climate hawks who toppled the Liberal-National Coalition in many of its perennial strongholds. The coalition, heavily favored (and financed) by the country’s fossil fuel titans, had counted on scaring voters with the threat of job losses in extractive industries. But even Queensland and Western Australia—the twin centers of the country’s massive coal mining and export industry—swung hard to the left on climate.

The results have revealed, in unprecedentedly stark terms, the two choices available to mainstream political parties on a rapidly warming planet: either break the grip of their fossil fuel suzerains or face a backlash from voters roughly proportional to the climate disasters they’ve been forced to suffer through. (The third option, of course, being the MAGA route: abandon majoritarian democracy in order to block public opinion on climate from ever translating into policy, inducing a federal-scale hostage situation in which the government allows the fossil fuel industry to destroy its constituents for profit.)

Worryingly, as of this writing, President Biden and the Democrats appear to be choosing option two. They have failed to prevent the coal industry—personified in its marionette Joe Manchin—from setting the pace on the clean energy transition. With only a few weeks left to seal any climate deal at all, there are few signs that the administration is treating the climate crisis as the world-historical, do-or-die priority that it so demonstrably is. At a moment when party leaders should be doing everything they can to get a climate bill across the finish line, or else invoking the Defense Production Act to circumvent Congress, Democratic leaders seem distracted at best, resigned at worst.

It’s not even June, and voters across the Eastern Seaboard are sweating through temperatures in the upper 90s. If Democrats let another scorching summer pass without passing legislation that will turn down the heat, their candidates will wither at the polls come November. Young people, especially, know that talk is cheap on climate—and, unlike in Australia, they don’t even have to cast a vote at all.

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