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Climate change brought down another prime minister in Australia. Here’s what happened.

- August 27, 2018
This 2016 photo shows dead coral on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Researchers think global warming causes heat-induced bleaching. (Greg Torda/ARC Center of Excellence/AP)

In Australia, Scott Morrison was sworn in as prime minister (PM) on Friday night, after an internal party revolt that led to the downfall of Malcolm Turnbull, who had been PM since September 2015. Conservative backbenchers within Turnbull’s own right-leaning Liberal party rejected his proposal to address climate change through an emissions-reduction target, and challenged his leadership.

Why is climate such a politically explosive issue in Australia? Depending on whose count, this is the third or seventh time that an Australian prime minister has been brought down by climate issues.

Australia is quite vulnerable to climate change, but complicated domestic politics have prevented the country from addressing the problem. This illustrates just how difficult it is for individual countries to develop policies to mitigate climate change — the bottom-up approach favored under the Paris Agreement.

Australia suffers greatly from climate change

New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, is in a major drought, with devastating effects on agriculture. The impact of the drought was captured vividly in photos of flocks of emus, large flightless birds, recently mobbing a town in search of water and food. And vast stretches of the Great Barrier Reef died in recent years as a result of coral bleaching brought on by record high water temperatures.

Australia is also one of the world’s largest coal producers — by one account responsible for 37 percent of global exports — and the coal lobby through the Minerals Council is especially politically influential. Industry lobby groups, like those in the United States, opposed action on climate change and cultivated partisan division on the issue.

Although a growing majority of Australians favor action on climate change, a strong, influential minority opposes taking action. A spring 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that just 16 percent of Liberal party supporters thought climate change was a serious problem, compared with 58 percent of Labor and 79 percent of Green party supporters.

There are also large generational differences between younger and older Australians. A 2018 Lowy Institute poll found that 70 percent of Australians ages 18 to 44 considered global warming a “serious and pressing problem” compared with only 49 percent of those older than 44.

The problem has claimed several PMs already 

Political instability in Australia’s rough-and-tumble parliamentary democracy has been pervasive, with climate issues often at the heart of recent turmoil. In the past decade, Australia has had five prime ministers — Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Rudd again briefly, Tony Abbott and Turnbull. Nobody served a full term.

The most recent kerfuffle is the latest in a string of political fights. Most recently, Turnbull, facing resistance from his own party, backpedaled on legislation to curb carbon emissions under a plan called the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).

Sensing vulnerability, Turnbull opponents challenged his leadership. Turnbull toppled Abbott, a fellow Liberal, in a similar manner in September 2015. With elections looming in May 2019 that the opposition Labor Party looks likely to win, Turnbull’s internal opponents decided the time was ripe to oust him.

Abbott, though somewhat a climate skeptic, committed Australia in August 2015 to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The NEG proposal was an attempt to legislate those targets and also address high electricity prices and periodic blackouts that have affected parts of the country. Australia’s emissions have been rising since 2012.

The inability to legislate Australia’s climate commitments through the NEG generated swift condemnation by the wider Australian business community, citing worries about policy uncertainty.

There’s a Trump effect, in part 

President Trump’s announcement last year that the United States intended to withdraw from the Paris Agreement emboldened Abbott to break with the more moderate Turnbull — and reject the target Abbott previously set as prime minister. In July, he called for Australia to leave the accord as well. He used the U.S. decision as justification: “Absent America, my government would not have signed up to the Paris treaty, certainly not with the current target.”

The crackup over climate commitments is not a new story in Australia, and controversy over emissions trading schemes has also pushed out other leaders. Arguably, disputes about climate change contributed to the downfall of Labor leaders Rudd and Gillard in the mid-2000s. There appears to be a center of cross-party support for climate action and even greater support for renewables. But Australians, like Americans, seem reluctant to pay for expensive climate policies.

Turnbull’s measure would have passed with Labor support, but Labor and the Greens wanted an even more ambitious climate commitment. They also saw a general election they are likely to win — and little reason to hand Turnbull a victory that might have restored his electoral fortunes.

Climate politics got even more difficult without U.S. leadership

Australia’s political challenges underscore the difficulties the Paris Agreement now faces. Although the United States is still formally part of the Paris Agreement until November 2020, its withdrawal of political support makes it harder for other countries to make costly commitments of their own — as Abbott’s declaration after Trump’s Paris withdrawal illustrates. Brazil may follow suit if Jair Bolsonaro is elected in October.

The Paris Agreement was based on the premise that the enforcement capacity of the international community is limited. Another top-down climate treaty with commitments negotiated by diplomats — such as the Kyoto Protocol — would not work.

Instead, Paris substituted “National Determined Contributions,” where each country determined for itself what it thought it could do. Although these commitments were inadequate, the idea was to get a virtuous circle, to ramp up collective ambition and efforts to avoid dangerous climate change.

That isn’t really happening now, and as we see with Australia, the problems are not limited to the United States. The international community is sending mixed signals about the importance of this issue, which has changed the domestic political calculus in a number of countries.

But, as I argued recently in Foreign Affairs, climate change is going to become more — not less — salient over time. Australia’s crisis shows that, paradoxically, demand for action on climate change is likely to grow, both to address pollution, the underlying cause of climate change, but also the consequences of inaction.

Joshua Busby is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. His piece with Nigel Purvis, “Climate Leadership in Uncertain Times,” is forthcoming from the Atlantic Council. Find him on Twitter @busbyj2.