Climate change is heating up elections — and the right is getting torched.
Voters in Australia dumped Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National government from power on Saturday in what has been dubbed the country’s “climate election.” High-profile Liberals were driven from the party’s inner-city heartlands losing six seats to pro-climate independents and at least one to the Greens.
New Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese flew to Japan Monday to meet leaders from the Quad — a grouping including Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. — bearing a message: “There’s a new government in Australia, and it’s a government that represents a change in terms of the way that we deal with the world on issues like climate change.”
The role climate plays in Australia’s politics is extreme, but not unique. Climate change is emerging as an electoral issue and other governments also risk being hurt or outflanked on the left by voters who want further-reaching climate action.
In Germany, the center right was sideswiped by a Green wave. Britain’s governing Tories are being pressured by climate rebels on the party’s right wing. In France, it’s a problem for the center. In the U.S., Joe Biden looks set to suffer.
That’s why Australia’s election is a warning to “center-right parties worldwide,” said John Flesher, the international spokesperson for the U.K. Conservative Environment Network, a pressure group that aims to promote environmentalism within the Tory party. “Voters of all stripes want politicians to act decisively to tackle climate change.”
Down Under, Morrison’s undoing is being parsed more bluntly.
“They tried to bullshit their climate policies and they got punished,” said Richie Merzian, a former Australian diplomat who is now director of the climate and energy program at the Australia Institute.
It’s the most dramatic example in a series of recent elections in which climate has played a role.
In Germany in September, the Christian Democrats (CDU) lost their 16-year grip on power to a coalition of Social Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens. Although ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel had adopted one of the most ambitious net zero policies in the world, the party’s commitment lost credibility when CDU leader Armin Laschet was videoed laughing during a visit to a town hit by devastating floods last summer and he refused to shift policy amid calls for a stronger response. The Greens surged into third place and were handed ministries with a mandate to clean up Germany’s economy.
The CDU’s defeat was not only due to climate change, but “our weak performance” was a factor, said Peter Liese, a member of the European Parliament for the CDU. The “recipe for success,” he said, includes stronger climate policy.
Now some CDU figures are pushing for the party to realign and hit the Greens as they struggle to turn their ambitions into policy. “Each party should critically examine its own climate policy goals … This is not only true for the CDU, but also for the Greens,” said Wiebke Winter, a CDU board member and part of its youth wing.
In France last month, incumbent President Emmanuel Macron scrambled to draw up a fresh green agenda in the final two weeks of the presidential election campaign after a surprisingly strong challenge from far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who pledged stronger climate action.
Duly reelected, Macron adopted Mélenchon’s policy of centralized, long-term environmental planning and this week swore in a team of ministers charged with that mission. But Mélenchon still has him under pressure, pulling together a coalition of green and left parties with the explicit aim of denying Macron’s coalition a majority in June’s legislative election.
In the U.S., the Democrats have dismayed left-wing activists by their failure to convince one of their own — Senator Joe Manchin — to pass major climate legislation in the Senate. That risks compounding the party’s problems in November’s midterm election, said Evergreen Action Executive Director Jamal Raad. Biden won the support of young, climate-concerned voters in 2020, but now “the fear is that they don’t vote,” said Raad.
The danger often comes from within.
In Australia, Morrison’s Liberal-National Coalition is split between a moderate wing and a right-wing faction that has fought even rudimentary attempts to advance policies to cut emissions. The U.K.’s Conservatives and Germany’s CDU also feature anti-climate pressure groups that aim to stoke voters concerns over increasing the cost-of-living with green policy.
That leaves them vulnerable to being outflanked. In the U.K., the Tory party has been advised by pollsters that climate is a “permission-to-play” issue in terms of its credibility with voters, leading Prime Minister Boris Johnson to revise his past climate skepticism and present himself as an evangelist for green issues.
The Conservative Party has a vocal climate-skeptic wing, which so far hasn’t shifted government policy on the issue. But if Johnson bows to their pressure, Flesher said the Australian losses in inner Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney could easily be repeated in Surrey, Canterbury or Wimbledon.
“This could happen in the U.K.’s so-called ‘blue wall’ if the Conservatives diluted the bold environmental platform that helped secure a landslide for the party in 2019,” he said, referring to southern constituencies that could be vulnerable to Labour or Liberal Democrat candidates. Polling by green groups has backed that up, indicating that climate concern runs stronger in Tory strongholds than the rest of the country.
In Australia, the lessons the Liberal-National Coalition draws from its defeat may determine its electoral future.
The politics of climate have been toxic for more than a decade. Morrison is the fifth prime minister to lose the job in the so-called “climate wars” — but the only one to lose it because his efforts were not considered ambitious enough.
In the days since the election, the divide within the Coalition over climate has been stark: Moderate Liberals have urged the party to return to the center, while the leader of the Nationals Barnaby Joyce said the party might drop its net-zero commitment altogether.
That could play into the hands of the “teal” — Liberal-blue mixed with a splash of green — independents, who burned through the Liberal holdfasts in this election.
“I’m not convinced that drifting any further to the right will help [the Coalition] in an electorate like mine,” said Zoe Daniel, the newly elected independent MP for the inner Melbourne electorate of Goldstein, where she said climate was “the top issue for most people.”
A former journalist, Daniel said she was just the kind of “socially progressive, economically conservative” swing voter the Liberals had lost through their failure to act on climate.
As it did last year in Germany, climate change intervened directly in Australian politics.
Morrison’s first full term as prime minister was “bookended by unprecedented bushfires and unprecedented floods, both supercharged by climate change,” said Merzian. Morrison had his Laschet moment when he flew to Hawaii during the fires, saying in an interview: “‘I don’t hold a hose, mate.”
In Brisbane, where floods have repeatedly submerged the city and surrounding country in recent months, the Greens won two seats and are challenging for a third, at least tripling their representation in the lower house of the national parliament.
Seeing climate change in stark reality “has really scared people,” said Daniel. There was a sense among voters that “time is compressing. That you can’t just keep thinking, ‘Oh, well, that’s something that’s going to happen down the track.’”
But the teals have tapped into another fear altogether, one that resonates along the well-to-do bayside of Melbourne and the millionaire rows of Sydney: the fear of a missed opportunity.
“The corporate world is way ahead of government on climate policy action,” she said. “I think the penny has dropped for a lot of people that it is an economic issue and that we really have to move on this. Otherwise, our prosperity will be threatened.”
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