Australia’s climate-focused election is blowing a lot of hot air. It’s a rare country where green issues sit atop the list of priorities. The $1.3 trillion economy is among the most vulnerable to global warming, but also depends on coal. Unfortunately, neither of the main political parties is tackling the contradiction head-on.
Voters typically care most about their wallets. And in Australia, where growth is cooling after a nearly three-decade run without a recession, it is indeed an important factor ahead of the May 18 ballot. An ABC poll, however, found that the environment was the number one concern for 29% of respondents, compared to just 9% in 2016, and ahead of 23% who rated the economy first. During the U.S. elections in November, climate change ranked 11th among issues, according to Gallup.
There’s good reason to worry Down Under. Recent months have brought record temperatures and floods, while a terrible drought has devastated parts of eastern Australia. And yet coal, iron ore, gas and oil are huge contributors to the country’s exports, power and employment.
Both the Liberal-National coalition and the Labor opposition have strayed on the subject. The incumbent alliance’s track record is especially poor. Former Liberal leader Tony Abbott called climate science “absolute crap”. A scandal over state water purchases has not helped. The party attacked Labor on the cost of going green – as much as A$35 billion ($24 billion), they say – but has spent less time discussing the cost of not making the transition.
The Labor Party under Bill Shorten has a clearer policy on electric vehicles, batteries, renewable energy and reducing emissions. It refuses to put a price on them, though.
It’s all a missed opportunity given the zeal from voters, and their understanding that a coherent environmental policy is associated with broader competence. What’s more, as a country severely threatened by climate change, Australian politicians are in position to take a global lead. Regulators and the central bank have suggested any transition to a less carbon-intensive economy ought to be early and orderly. It’ll take stronger leadership for that to happen.