Saturday, May 21 2022 may long be remembered in the history books as the day that ended Australia’s “Climate Wars.”
Following the Federal election on Saturday, and for the first time in over a decade, there is a clear mandate and strong impetus to enact meaningful reductions in Australia’s carbon emissions.
The electorate has delivered a seismic shift in the political landscape and has sharpened the focus on climate change as a key issue for the Australian electorate.
Combined, independents and minor parties comprised nearly one-third of the votes. This is the largest share of the vote to non-major parties in Australian political history. This sets a precedent in 2022. We have shown that, collectively, we will vote outside the major two-party system for issues, like climate change, that are important to us.
As a climate scientist, I am more hopeful now than I have ever been, that Australia will step up to the global table and play its part to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C, per the Paris Agreement. These cuts must be achieved if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
This moment, though welcome, was a little unexpected. Neither major party touted meaningful action to combat climate change as a central policy platform. The incumbent conservative party, because of their traditional inaction — including elements of climate denial and continued support of fossil fuels. The centre-left opposition party avoided climate because they were bruised after making climate change central to their unsuccessful campaign in 2019.
Instead, the 2022 election became a somewhat unexpected referendum on climate change issues spearheaded by affluent inner-city independents who felt that their traditional party, the conservatives, were ignoring some of their key concerns.
Climate policy in this country has been a roller coaster ride in recent decades, and meaningful action on curbing carbon emissions has been a long time coming. Saturday’s outcome is a welcomed relief that the ride might finally be coming to an end.
Since the 1980s, the Climate Wars have left the Australian electorate, and citizens alike, uncertain about if and when action to curb carbon emissions would be enacted.
When they were last in power, the centre-left Labor Party introduced a price on carbon in 2012, only to overturn it in 2013 in favour of an emissions trading scheme. The scheme was never enacted as they were defeated at a Federal election shortly after.
The conservative Liberal-National coalition has been in power ever since, and it’s safe to say that strong and meaningful action on climate change was never on their agenda. Just this year, the now-former Government was rebuked by the UN as being a ‘holdout’ for refusing to do more to cut emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. Instead, they touted a ‘gas-led recovery’ as the plan for boosting post-pandemic economic activity.
I had hoped the conservative Government might take action after Australia’s canary-in-the-coalmine moment during the 2019/2020 Black Summer, when huge swathes of the country’s southeast burned during the most widespread and costly wildfires in recorded history. Nope. Australia burned and our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, vacationed in Hawaii. “I don’t hold a hose, mate” was his response when asked why he wasn’t cutting his holiday short. That statement would haunt him in the 2022 election campaign.
The Black Summer fires sparked a quiet revolution that has been smoldering beneath the surface ever since. People were angry with the conservative Liberal-National Government for their delayed actions to the fires, and their subsequent non-response to climate change. Their similar approach to severe flooding in 2021 and 2022 only exacerbated dissatisfaction with how the now-former Government dealt with climate fueled disasters.
In Australia’s two largest cities Melbourne and Sydney, a suite of independent candidates stood against the Liberal Party incumbents in what were thought to be their safest seats. And at the centre for each of these independents was meaningful action to curb climate change.
Nearly every one of these independents, seven in total, has been swept to power, ousting some of the most powerful members of Government in the process. This includes the now-former Treasurer, who was arguably the second most powerful politician in the country. In addition, a climate focused independent looks to win a Senate seat in the Australian Capital Territory.
The sentiment for climate action was also made manifest through the Greens party, who have captured two, possibly three, new seats in inner-city Brisbane, Australia’s third largest city. This will make the party the third largest party block in the House of Representatives, with additional significant success with Senate seats.
Through this dissent from the two major parties, Australians have shown that we want action and certainty on climate policy, in line with what the science says is needed to stave off substantial climate changes. I am more confident than ever that we’ll get it; and though the devil will be in the detail, it appears that the climate wars are now substantively over.