Back in February 2017, Scott Morrison, now the prime minister of Australia, brought a lump of coal to Parliament. He waved it around.
“This is coal,” Morrison told his fellow legislators. “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared.”
Morrison went on to mock the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, over his party’s enthusiasm for renewable energy. “If Bill Shorten becomes the prime minister,” Morrison said, “all the lights will go off around the country.”
Such sentiments may have won votes two years ago, but they seem less sure-fire today. Morrison’s government is facing an election on May 18 and climate change is a key issue among voters.
In a recent survey, 23 percent of respondents cited the environment as one of their key concerns, sharply up from the 14 percent recorded in 2016, at the time of the last election. The latest polls predict the coalition government’s defeat, with the Labor Party heading for a clear victory.
Young voters, who have registered in record numbers, are particularly passionate about the issue, with 39 percent of respondents under that age of 35 now rating the environment as their No. 1 concern.
Why the shift? Australia is the middle of a particularly savage drought. This past January was the nation’s hottest on record, and large swaths of the country received a fifth of their normal rainfall. There were wildfires in Tasmania and floods in Queensland. Temperatures in March also broke records.
Along parts of the iconic Darling River, the stagnant water turned toxic over summer. Several million fish died and in December and January, their bloated bodies floating to the surface. In one video, two distressed locals each cradled a huge, dead Murray Cod, one declaring some of the dead fish to be 100 years old. An expert panel from the Australian Academy of Science disagreed with that age assessment, yet still assessed the fish as being up to 25 years old — meaning they had endured, and survived, many previous dry spells.
This drought, in other words, was different.
Adding to the change in mood is a growing cynicism about government fear-mongering over renewables. For some years, Morrison’s side has sounded shrill when discussing the cost of a low-carbon economy.
Barnaby Joyce, a significant figure in the governing coalition, at one point predicted a tax on carbon would make a single cow or sheep cost as much as a house. In 2011, Tony Abbott, who later became prime minister, declared the science around climate change was “absolute crap” and said a carbon price would wipe large industrial towns such as Whyalla “off the map.”
Such predictions have moderated over time, yet the government’s wariness about carbon-reduction has continued.
Just this month, a massive new coal mine has been approved for Queensland, despite its potential impact on Australia’s most significant natural wonder: the already damaged Great Barrier Reef.
More bizarrely, in terms of a pro-business government, there were suggestions that a coal-fired power plant be forcibly acquired from its private owners — just to keep it open. The private company, AGL, resisted, citing business reasons for its desire to shift to renewables.
The Labor Party also faces criticism. It has failed in the past to follow through on its climate change commitments. This time around, some point to Labor’s unwillingness to predict the cost of its carbon-abatement plans.
The government, meanwhile, claims to be on track to meet the country’s carbon-reduction targets. Its leadership — whatever the arguments over policy — now accepts the science of anthropogenic climate change.
And yet some still argue that Australia, because of its small population, has a negligible impact on global warning. To me, this is the worst argument for doing nothing.
It’s true that Australia was responsible for just 1.1 percent of global emissions in 2016, ranking Australia No. 16 among the most polluting countries in the world. And yet, per capita, we’re among the worst.
More to the point, as I’ve argued before, it’s pathetic and absurd to say small countries have no role in solving big problems.
Australia could have adopted the same “little us” argument during World War II. Who needs the Australians when such valiant work was being done by others — the Brits, the Russians, the Americans, the Canadians? It’s true, I suppose, that the Allies would have won without the Australians — the nearly 1 million of our people who served; the 27,073 who were killed in action.
But how is that an argument for not doing your bit?
The unstated thought: Important battles should be left to others. Smaller nations can stand on the sidelines and freeload.
Australia is more at risk from climate change than almost any other country in the developed world. It’s taken us a while, but — with this election — many Australians are signaling a desire to put their shoulder to the wheel.
Richard Glover presents the "Drive" show on ABC Radio Sydney. He’s a former news editor and European correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and author of 12 books, including the best-selling memoir “Flesh Wounds." For more: richardglover.com.au