Australia elected a new prime minister on Saturday—a divisive, brash conservative named Tony Abbott who promises to make Australia a far-right paradise after six consecutive years of liberal rule. Abbott, 55, is a Rhodes scholar and a former Oxford boxing blue (a Commonwealth’s analog to John Kerry’s windsurfing). He channels business-friendliness—declaring Australia “open for business”—and he harbors Neanderthalian gender politics—saying his female opponent had “sex appeal” and calling abortion “a question of the mother’s convenience.” He has been celebrated on The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page as a possible “role model for conservatives around the world.” Think of him, as a Guardian columnist recently suggested, as a Tea Party politician, if an American Tea Partier could win a presidential election.
And just as the Tea Party has a powerful bogeyman in Obamacare, Abbott has Australia’s unpopular climate change policies to thank, in part, for his party’s resounding weekend victory.
In Australia, a country facing terrible drought and threats from sea level rise, climate change is not the sidelined issue it is here. Leaders in the Labor Party, the liberals and moderates who have run the country for the past six years, have actually lost seats for failing to deliver climate change measures. A plan Labor finally implemented in 2010—a tax that will become an emissions-trading scheme—has been helping to drive down Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions by millions of tons year after year.
But today, it’s the far right that’s on the ascendency, with their vitriolic opposition to the new tax specifically, and to anything to address climate change generally. In 2009, as Abbott was running to be leader of the conservatives, he told a gathering of farmers in remote Victoria that climate change is “absolute crap.” During his campaign for prime minister this year, he told reporters that Australia’s emissions-pricing scheme was “not a real market.” As Giles Parkinson of the Guardian pointed out, Abbott's argument—that since carbon dioxide is colorless and odorless, it is foolish for the government to regulate it—comes straight from the mouths of climate deniers. (See Jo Nova, of Australia’s Galileo Movement, belittling the “the scammability of permits for invisible unverifiable goods.”)
Some measure of Abbott’s virulence is definitely due to political expediency. In the past, he's acknowledged that human action impacts the climate. But Abbott and his party now seem determined to ignore climate change. Abbott’s main environmental policy adviser denies the existence of climate change, and he plans to establish a business advisory council chaired by a businessman who credits global warming to “Mother Nature," who decided "to change gears from cooler to warmer.” The Institute of Public Affairs, a far-right Australian think tank with myriad ties to the conservative Liberals, has been busy making a list of public offices involved in fighting climate change that Abbott should abolish. The future of Australia’s robust renewable energy industry is uncertain as Liberal leaders rethink the country’s renewable energy targets. The party has appointed as an adviser to its carbon emission reductions policy a man who doubts that humans cause global warming. At their best, the party merely feints at addressing environmental problems. Abbott oversaw the launch of a “green army” a few years ago, a paid corps of young people who revegetated Australia’s sand dunes and fished the trash out of its creek beds. At the time, Abbott said that climate change was an important issue, but Australia faced “very big environmental challenges much nearer to home.”
Given Abbot and the Liberal Party’s approach to climate change, you wouldn’t guess that Australia is among the world’s biggest polluters. Abbott allies frequently point out that Australia’s annual share of global greenhouse gas emissions is about 1.5 percent. But by any other measure, Australia has a large responsibility to bear when it comes to addressing climate change. A nation of 22.7 million, it is one of the only countries on the planet whose denizens generate more carbon dioxide emissions each year than Americans—18.4 tons per capita versus 17.3 tons per capita in the U.S. While other polluting nations may be larger, Australia still has an outsized carbon footprint. It has the dubious distinction of being one of the few top-25 greenhouse gas emitters that is not also one of the world’s 25 most populous countries, and it’s among the top 25 countries responsible for climate change as measured by how many fossil fuels they extract and burn. Potential contribution to climate change, based on what it chooses to do with its untapped reserves, is enormous. Finally, Australia is just behind the U.S. in its global “consumption footprint”—arguably the best measure of a country’s overall contribution to climate change.
The Labor Party put Australia on a potentially game-changing path. Its greenhouse gas reduction programs served as critical models for other well-developed countries. With plenty of first-world nations occupying the ranks of the world’s top polluters, that was no small thing. Under Abbott, Australia will do a dramatic about face. It’s not clear that Abbott can repeal the county’s carbon-pricing scheme outright, but he can certainly hamstring the government’s ability to support it. And Australia will definitely cease to lead other developed nations in taking action to curb greenhouse gases. If only Abbott were the politician today that he was three years ago, when he said the following: “I am confident, based on the science we have, that mankind does make a difference to climate, almost certainly the impact of humans on the planet extends to climate.”
Molly Redden is a New Republic staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.