By Hilary Whiteman and Hannah Ritchie, CNN
Ken Morrison has twice been up to his neck in water during climate disasters.
The first time, in 2007, he was trapped in a pool with a towel over his head as wildfires ripped through Australia’s Hunter Valley, a wine-growing region about three hours’ drive north of Sydney.
“The roar is unbelievable. You can feel the oxygen getting taken out of the air,” recalled the 57-year-old paramedic, who was on the job treating volunteer firefighters for burns and broken bones at the time.
The second incident was this February, when relentless rain burst the banks of the Richmond River, sending a tsunami-like wave surging through the small town of Woodburn in northern New South Wales, where Morrison lives. He waded in darkness to free a boat stored in the back shed so his family could escape the floodwater.
“I’m in total darkness. I got leeches all over me. Covered,” he told CNN, standing in boots caked with mud in his backyard after a second flood in April.
Australia has long been known as the “lucky country,” partly due to its wealth of coal and gas, as well as minerals like iron ore, which have driven generations of economic growth.
But it’s now sitting on the frontier of a climate crisis, and the fires, floods and droughts that have already scarred the country are only expected to become more extreme as the Earth warms.
Despite its exposure to the crisis, Australia has one of the worst records on climate action in the developed world, with plans under the current government to cut emissions by just 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2030 — a target that pales in comparison to those set by its allies in the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union. Even the Business Council of Australia, which represents companies including mining interests, supports a higher target.
On May 21, Prime Minister Scott Morrison (who is of no relation to Ken Morrison) will be asking Australians to re-elect his center-right Liberal Party and its ally, the Nationals, in a coalition government, after a three-year term bookended by climate-related disasters: The Black Summer fires in 2019-20 that razed bushland covering an area equivalent in size to the UK, claimed dozens of lives and killed or displaced roughly three billion animals. Then the floods this year that swamped Ken Morrison’s home and so many others like it in New South Wales and further north in Queensland.
But the Prime Minister’s bid for a second term could be thwarted by his main rival, Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese, who’s promising to cut emissions by 43% by 2030.
Saturday’s vote is a pivotal one — it will either provide a mandate for more of the same, or set the country on a different path.
According to the Ipsos Climate Change report, a survey of 1,000 voters in the last week of March showed that four in five were “concerned” about the crisis, and two-thirds thought the country should be doing more about it.
But public surveys have been wrong before.
In 2019, opinion polls predicted a win for the opposition center-left Labor Party and its ambitious plan to boost the use of renewables and electric cars. But Labor lost, and the vote only vindicated the coalition’s inaction on climate.
While current polls show Labor is on track to win this election, the crisis is now competing with other problems that appear more immediate — the cost of living, the rise of China and inflation among them.
Ken Morrison says he’s not sure who he’ll vote for, but he knows it won’t be either of the main parties: “Liberal and Labor, they’re the same horse with different stripes.”
‘This is coal. Don’t be afraid’
Before he became prime minister, Scott Morrison cemented his position as an unflinching ally of the fossil fuel industry when he wielded a lump of coal in parliament to taunt the opposition about its renewable energy policy.
“This is coal. Don’t be afraid. It won’t hurt you!” he bellowed over jeers. “It is coal that has ensured for over 100 years that Australia has enjoyed an energy competitive advantage.”
That was five years ago, but the Australian government has been on the record as an international holdout on climate action since 1997, when it strong-armed delegates during the landmark Kyoto talks to secure a deal to not only avoid cutting its net emissions but to actually increase them to 108% of its 1990 levels by 2012.
Australia relies on fossil fuels to power its economy, and in the last 10 years, the mining industry has earned 2.1 trillion Australian dollars ($1.5 trillion USD) in export revenues, amounting to 21% of total GDP growth.
While much of the world is working on a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, Australia is considering more than 100 new fossil fuel projects, many of which could go online within the next decade.
If all fossil fuel developments under consideration in Australia went ahead, they could collectively contribute an extra 1.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions each year, according to research by independent think tank The Australia Institute. That is a lot of greenhouse gas — more than three times the amount Australia already emits, and nearly double of what all the global aviation produces in a year.
The federal government has long supported coal and gas with subsidies that amounted to 10.5 billion Australian dollars (US$7.2 billion) in the 2021-22 budget, and now, its economic recovery plan is decidedly “gas-fired.” Among its new gas projects and pipelines is the Scarborough to Pluto development in Western Australia, which will emit between 1.37–1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gasses in its lifetime, including emissions sent offshore. That’s equivalent to nearly 15 new coal-fired power stations, according to recent analysis.
Australia “appears intent on replacing fossil fuels with fossil fuels,” notes a scathing assessment from the Climate Action Tracker, which monitors climate commitments by governments.
On paper, both major parties say they want to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and are promising to spend around 20 billion Australian dollars ($14 billion) to get there.
For the coalition, that means more gas projects and investing in emissions-reducing technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS), a method of trapping and storing carbon from fossil fuels to allow for their continued use. But the technology is not 100% effective, and scientists have warned against using it to meet climate goals.
For Labor, reaching net zero means overhauling the electricity grid, offering discounts on electric cars, and creating new solar banks and community batteries. But Albanese hasn’t ruled out more coal projects, saying that applications will be approved if they “stack up environmentally, and then commercially” — a nod to how politically popular supporting coal mining jobs is among the party’s traditional voting base.
The Greens are promising to phase out the mining, burning, and export of thermal coal by 2030 and end fossil fuel subsidies, but as a minor party its influence will be limited unless its candidates can secure enough seats to sway a hung parliament.
The ‘lucky country’
Back in Woodburn, northern New South Wales, some residents are still living in tents and caravans pitched in front of mud-stained houses 11 weeks after the first flood in February. Having lost everything, it would be easy to assume they’d tilt towards parties promising greater climate action. But not necessarily.
Tamara Collins, a remote nurse who lives near Ken Morrison’s house, said she’ll vote Labor, but only because their local candidate answered the phone when she and her husband, Tim Phillips, were scooping toxic mud from the floor of their newly renovated house.
Cam Hollows, a doctor and the son of prominent eye surgeon Fred Hollows, lives and works in the region. As water rushed into homes, he took a helicopter to remote communities cut off by floodwater to help with relief efforts. “A lot of people that live in the bush don’t choose to live here because they’re lucky in life,” he said. “The ‘lucky country’ has a lot of unlucky people.”
About a third of the nation’s 26 million people live outside major cities in regional towns and villages. The cost of living is typically lower, but life in rural Australia can be hard. There are fewer jobs and prolonged droughts have robbed many farmers of their livelihoods.
Hollows describes the “two very different classes in Australia” in terms of caravans: “There’s the $80,000 caravans towed behind $100,000 cars and caravans that haven’t had wheels for 40 or 50 years.” Some are used for extended holidays, others are permanent homes.
Woodburn is in the federal electorate of Page, a safe seat held by the National Party, the Liberal Party’s conservative coalition partners, who typically represent regional voters.
In Page, Hollows expects the Liberal National Coalition to “bleed yellow,” a reference to the United Australia Party, which is making its pitch to voters on bright yellow billboards on roads and highways around the country. The right-wing party is a collection of candidates led and bankrolled by Clive Palmer, the brusque former mining magnate who has promised to “Make Australia Great!” on a platform of capped mortgages and pulling all Australian investments out of Europe and the US. Palmer has no climate policy at all.
A new wave of Australian politics
At the opposite end of the ideological scale to Palmer sit the Independent “teal” contenders, named after the color most have chosen to use in their campaigns, who are launching challenges in 22 predominantly marginal electorates.
And almost all of the candidates are women.
Their plan is to take inner-city seats held by Morrison’s government by offering climate action to fiscally conservative voters who won’t back Labor but are tired of the coalition’s business-as-usual approach to fossil fuels.
While these candidates are independent, all are backed by “Climate 200,” an organization pushing to elect Independent voices capable of negotiating larger emissions reduction targets.
One of the teal candidates is Jo Dyer, an Australian theater and film producer, who decided to run for office after becoming frustrated with what she described as the “revolving door” between Australia’s political class and the fossil fuel industry.
“Climate change is seen as some sort of ideological issue here as opposed to an impending global crisis — it’s been reduced to part of the culture wars,” Dyer told CNN during a meeting in her local seat of Boothby, a collection of suburbs in the nation’s driest state of South Australia, which encompasses rugged coastline and sprawling foothills.
At a climate forum hosted by Dyer, local resident Cheryl Lange said she was fed up with the lack of urgency of the major parties.
“I’m voting for a climate candidate because the big parties are under the thumb of the fossil fuel companies. There’s no sense at all of the urgent need to take action,” she said.
In Dyer’s view, this is a last-chance election — one which could reveal uncomfortable truths about Australia’s priorities.
“People often say this is ‘not who we are as a country,'” Dyer said. “Well, if this government is rewarded, we’d have to say, actually this is exactly who we are.”
A different pathway
The landmark Paris agreement in 2015 saw 200 nations put their differences aside with a promise to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century — a commitment that was strengthened at last year’s summit in Glasgow.
But neither of Australia’s major parties are currently coming to the table with targets that are consistent with those goals, according to climate scientists.
The coalition’s targets are currently in line with nearly 4 degrees Celsius of warming globally, while Labor’s path would see a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise, according to Climate Analytics, led by one of Australia’s top scientists, Bill Hare.
Hare is acutely aware of the existential threats facing his nation, but says if enough climate-conscious candidates win their seats and apply pressure in Parliament, the election could be “transformative.”
“Underneath this horrible inaction lies an enormous opportunity to be a leader in clean energy,” Hare said, explaining that “a lot of the things Australia does to enable mining and gas extraction are very relevant to the rapid scaling up of the basic supply infrastructure needed for renewables.”
On top of having the tools to harness more renewable energy, Australia has the natural resources to provide it, with more solar potential per square meter than any other continent, and some of the best wind assets in the world.
Renewable energy already accounts for almost 33% of the nation’s power, according to the sector’s peak body. And states like South Australia — where two-thirds of electricity is generated from wind and solar — have been world-leading in their transition away from fossil fuels.
But back in Woodburn, where the sound of yet more rain keeps locals awake at night, voters like Ken Morrison are banking on self-reliance as they stare down the barrel of more extreme weather events, rather than any kind of change in government.
The boat that he once stored in the back shed now lives in the garage beneath his two-story home, ready in the event of a flash flood.
“And the kayak,” he said, “so we can get in and out quickly.”
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Woodburn satellite imagery provided by Geospatial Intelligence Pty Ltd and Airbus DS. Credits for intro video: Seven Network (CNN Affiliate), Nine News (affiliate), Sky News Australia (affiliate), European Union/Copernicus Emergency Management Service, AFP TV