Australia, the driest inhabited continent, is repeatedly ravaged by bushfires and floods -- costly, life-claiming disasters that scientists warn have been exacerbated by a warming planet. It’s also one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters and emitters per capita of greenhouse gases. Yet while most Australians insist they want more action to combat climate change, the country’s conservative government -- in power since 2013 -- has resisted moves that might undermine key industries. As this year’s global climate summit known as COP26 approaches, it’s finding itself increasingly isolated.

1. What impact is climate change having on Australia?

Its temperature now is 1.4 degrees Celsius (2.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the 30-year average up to 1980. That’s in line with the average for members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Australia’s scientific research body CSIRO says the country is experiencing more frequent hot weather, fewer cold days, shifting rainfall patterns and rising sea levels. It’s predicting climate change will cause longer droughts and more intense cyclones. In the past five years, marine heatwaves have triggered three mass bleaching events -- when coral lose their vibrant colors and turn white -- on the world’s largest living structure, the Great Barrier Reef, jeopardizing the health of an attraction that brings in billions of dollars annually in tourist revenue. And global warming likely exacerbated the so-called Black Summer bushfires in 2019-20, which were unprecedented in duration and scale, torching an area about the size of the U.K. 

2. What is Australia’s government doing?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s center-right government is an outlier among most developed nations in failing to adopt a target for reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by a certain date, and in refusing to impose taxes on polluters. While in the OECD the average of climate-related tax revenue as a percentage of the total is about 4.6%, in Australia it’s zero. Instead, Australia has laid out what it calls a technology roadmap to promote investment in carbon capture and storage, green hydrogen, and other emissions-reduction initiatives which have yet to be proven to be commercially viable on a large scale. Morrison has said Australia will meet its Paris Agreement target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by between 26% and 28% by 2030 from 2005 levels. As of March, it had achieved a decline of nearly 21% from that 2005 baseline, according to government data.

3. Who is asking for more?

The U.S. and U.K., as well as the United Nations, have been increasing the pressure on Australia to strengthen its climate commitments ahead of COP26, which runs Oct. 31-Nov. 12 in Glasgow, Scotland. Australia’s Pacific Islands neighbors, many of whom fear their very existence is threatened as sea levels rise, have expressed their dismay. Australia’s business community is also weighing in. A 2020 report by Deloitte Access Economics said the country’s economy could contract by 6% over the next five decades if climate change goes unchecked, meaning a A$3.4 trillion ($2.5 trillion) loss in gross domestic product and 880,000 fewer jobs. On the other hand, the country’s business lobby said A$890 billion in economic gains could be unlocked over the same period through stronger climate targets.

4. What’s behind the government’s stance?

The ruling conservative coalition has long taken pride in backing big business, including mining giants such as BHP Group and Glencore Plc. Morrison, who famously brandished a lump of coal in parliament to show his support, frequently talks up the fossil fuel industry’s importance to the economy. Last year, exports of coal, natural gas and crude petroleum reaped A$85.8 billion, accounting for about a fifth of trade revenue. While it only accounts for 2.1% of the workforce, a lot of those jobs are in areas crucial to the government’s electoral fortunes. And their future is uncertain: The biggest buyers of the country’s fossil fuel exports -- China, Japan and South Korea -- have already committed to reaching net-zero, pointing to a long-term structural decline in demand.

5. So it’s Morrison blocking plans for a firm target?

Actually these days it’s the junior coalition partner, the Nationals, who are digging in the hardest. Formed with agrarian-socialist roots a century ago in support of farmers and rural communities, in recent years the Nationals have increasingly shifted support to “Big Mining.” It’s especially strong in Queensland state, which produces the bulk of Australia’s coal. Barnaby Joyce, who enjoys the backing of the nation’s richest person, mining magnate Gina Rinehart, returned to lead the party in June on a platform that included resisting stronger climate targets. Another prominent National, Senator Matt Canavan, has threatened to vote against any legislation that would back net-zero.

6. Has Australia always been like this?

No. Australia was one of the first countries to see a Greens political movement, which formed in the 1970s to protest a hydroelectric project in the pristine wilderness of the island state of Tasmania. (It was blocked in 1983.) The Greens still capture about 10% of the national vote and often can block legislation in the Senate. Back in 2006, a survey showed 68% of Australians believed climate change was a significant problem that needed immediate action; by this year that had fallen to 60%. The progressive Labor Party implemented a charge for carbon emissions in 2012, while it was in power. The conservatives denounced it as a tax and removed it after they returned to office the following year. Since then, climate politics have been particularly poisonous in Australia. In fact, Morrison’s immediate predecessor, fellow conservative Malcolm Turnbull, was removed by his own party in 2018 after promoting stronger climate action. 

7. Where’s this headed?

Things seem to be coming to a head, with Morrison indicating that while he may not go to Glasgow himself, he wants the government to commit to a net-zero target by the time the meeting starts. In an unusual development, Australian newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. -- a supporter of the conservatives and long skeptical of climate change -- ran a series of front-page articles on Oct. 11 urging the government to “go green and save jobs in a net-zero world.” On the same day, however, a minister said that the government should include “caveats” in any net-zero pledge to allow it to suspend its commitments should areas of the economy be hurt. 

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