Will Gillard Bring Back Climate Leadership in Australia?

As a resident of the United States, which has long been and continues to be the biggest obstacle to global action on climate change, I probably have no business criticizing someone else’s country. Yet it’s my fervent hope that as Julia Gillard takes the helm of the Australian government as the nation’s first female prime minister, she will seize the opportunity to make Australia a more positive player in climate politics. It’s much too soon to tell how Gillard will deal with the need for an Australian climate bill, but there are some hopeful signs that she is at least willing to take the challenge seriously.

For years, Australia remained the only industrialized country besides the United States to decline from signing the Kyoto Protocol. That changed in 2007, when Kevin Rudd became prime minister, put his signature on the Kyoto treaty, and promised bold action on climate change. Yet in the years that followed, Rudd’s commitment to passing an Australian climate bill turned out to be rather underwhelming. A domestic cap-and-trade program was derailed in part by partisan politics and bickering within the Australia Senate (sound familiar, US readers?), and Rudd apparently made the political decision not to prioritize climate legislation after all. This decision may have contributed to a plunge in Rudd’s popularity, which led to his eventual abandonment by the Australian Labor Party, and Gillard’s instalment as prime minister.

In some ways, Gillard will have to deal with challenges similar to those being faced by US policymakers who want to reduce the causes of climate change. Australia, like the US, is a highly coal-dependent country. It’s likely no coincidence that the two industrialized nations which held out the longest on Kyoto both have a very powerful coal lobby. Because of its much smaller population, Australia’s contribution to climate change is much smaller than that of the US. But Australians actually have an even larger per-capita carbon footprint than US residents. Also significant is the fact that exports of the Australian mining industry have become an important source of food for the coal-gobbling power plants of China and other nearby countries in Asia.

At present coal provides cheap power for Australia, and the coal mining industry looks well-positioned to feed off China’s economic growth. Yet meanwhile Australia is feeling the effects of climate change perhaps more acutely than any other industrialized nation. The country recently withstood the worst drought in its history, shedding one fourth of its farming jobs along the way. In 2009, the Black Saturday bush fires cost 173 lives. And if climate change continues unabated then the Great Barrier Reef, pride of many Australians, will almost certainly be near-dead within decades.

There are tentative signs that Gillard recognizes the need for action, and that Australia could pass a climate bill this year. Gillard has said she believes in the scientific evidence for climate change, and wants to put a price on carbon. Meanwhile, the leader of Australia’s Green Party has approached Gillard with a plan to implement such a carbon price this year. Yet Rudd’s early days as prime minister were also marked by optimism from climate advocates, and this euphoria proved to be unfounded. What’s needed from Gillard is a sustained commitment to pass a climate bill in 2010, even in the face of the coal industry’s efforts to kill major progress.

Australia, like so many countries, must make a choice: ignore the increasingly urgent warnings of climate scientists and focus on short-term economic gain; or get serious about cutting back on coal and other fossil fuels, and avoid the mammoth long-term social and economic costs of catastrophic climate change. Which path Gillard takes will define how history remembers her stint as prime minister, and will shape how the rest of the world views Australia. Let’s hope she takes this challenge seriously, and begins quickly steering Australia toward a position of true climate leadership.

Photo credit: The University of Sydney