Australia Turns Back the Clock on Climate Change

The newly-elected conservative government in Australia has meant a significant shift in the country's environmental and climate policy and serious concerns are raised about the implications that these shifts can ultimately mean for the country's sensitive eco-systems and wildlife.


Daniel Yeow is the Online Manager and Editor at the Worldwatch Insitute Europe.

  • Since coming in to office, the newly-elected conservative government in Autralia has already abolished the national climate commission.
  • Although responsible for only 1.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the conservative party's intentions to destroy the carbon tax might have serious implications for the country.
  • Increased mining activity poses an increased risk for the marine biodiversity along the country's coast as well as the Great Barieer Reef.
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We interpret everything according to our own experiences. With that in mind, it would seem somewhat surprising that in Australia, of all places, a startlingly high number of people still deny climate change. Most Australians do believe in it, but in a country that no longer has a science minister, the newly-elected conservative government is populated by "leaders" who believe that it is some kind of conspiracy.

The media that the average Australian consumes is overwhelmingly populated by sources which are owned by people of a highly conservative and libertarian belief. Libertarianism—the belief that people should be free to do as they wish so long as they do not impinge on the freedom of others, is a decidedly human-centric philosophy and as such, large-scale environmental problems are generally not well-handled. In the minds of people like Rupert Murdoch, among others, environmental regulations are an unnecessary burden on people's freedom, and even if you don't really believe that, if that's what you read in the newspaper every day, then that's what you will be led to believe.

Looking at the numbers, we simply cannot deny the effects of climate change. Last summer was the hottest on record, and Australia is a country known for hot summers. I've followed electoral politics in Australia for quite some time, and in November 2009 Tony Abbott (now Prime Minister of Australia) ascended to the leadership of the conservative party after ousting then-leader Malcolm Turnbull 42 votes to 41. The issue that divided the party? Climate change—Tony didn't believe in it, and by extension, neither do the party faithful.

An iinforgraphic released by the Australian climate change commission before it was cut..

Wiping climate change off the political agenda

So in a rebirth of cold economic rationalism, what does this mean for Australia apart from not thinking science important enough to warrant a dedicated minister? One of the first acts of the new government was to abolish the Australian climate commission. As a country with such sensitive ecosystems, and a climate that is particularly sensitive to impacts, it was felt by the previous government that effectively communicating climate science to the public was important. I guess the current government was not able to justify spending a measly 5.4 million AUD (about USD 5.08) over four years to communicate to the public the effects of one of the largest existential threats ever to face humankind. The above infographic was one of many released by the commission during its brief existence.

High on the upcoming agenda for the new government is to remove the carbon tax. Brought in just over a year ago, Australia's CO2 emissions were down 11 percent from 2008–2009 levels, but one of the central campaign promises of Tony Abbott's new government was to scrap the tax, which would make Australia the first and only country in the world to do such a thing. Will this make a big difference in the global scheme of things? No. Australia is responsible for about 1.5 percent of global emissions, but how a country like Australia deals with the dual challenges of climate change and meeting Kyoto targets will be closely watched because of its physical geography. Its climate and population distribution present immense logistical challenges as it is, indicated by a per-capita carbon footprint of about 20 tons (slightly higher than the United States).

On a global scale, Australia's carbon tax may ultimately have very little effect on overall carbon emissions, but what about Australia's unique wildlife? No, I'm not suggesting that the new government is planning to shoot all the koalas, I'm talking about the Great Barrier Reef, and the extraordinary marine biodiversity that is sheltered there.

Protecting the interest of mining companies

Sadly, the recent ascension of powerful mining companies into the political scene (billionaire mining tycoon Clive Palmer founded a party which has won one seat in the House of Representatives, and three in the Senate on its first outing) has meant that dredging for shipping lanes on the Queensland coast is expanding at an alarming rate. The two major parties have done nothing to stop this, and only the Greens, predictably enough, have made a fuss about it. Silt from dredging poses a serious physical threat to coral reefs, and even the shipping itself brings dangers of its own, such as invasive species (stored in the ship's ballast tanks) as well as the risk of chemical or oil spills. Even though shipping lanes are carefully monitored, the reef has lost half its area of coral cover in the last 30 years. One can only hope that the 6 billion AUD tourist industry, employing 63,000 people can be used as leverage against the concentrated power of the mining magnates, because between shipping and the ocean acidification brought about by climate change, the Great Barrier Reef will be gone before we know it.

When going to the polls, Australians voted for a government far less sympathetic to the environment than any in recent history. Their experiences informed their choices, and sadly those experiences were distorted by a human-centered rhetoric, and a complicit, irresponsible media. It takes quite a leap of reasoning to make a choice based on what you might experience in the future, rather than what you have experienced in the past, but maybe, just maybe, when Australia runs out of mining wealth, and discovers that it has deprived the world of such a unique natural wonder as the Great Barrier Reef, maybe then all of us can learn from that experience and make better choices for the future.

The newly-elected conservative government in Australia has meant a significant shift in the country's environmental and climate policy. With carbon taxes being cut and the mining lobby becoming stronger, serious concerns are raised about the serious implications that these shifts can ultimately mean for Australia's sensitive eco-systems and wildlife.