Power lines run from Liddell Power Station near Muswellbrook, Australia.

Seeing red in unfair green deals

In Australia, a surprise victory for a pro-coal party shows the need worldwide to ensure economic justice in tackling climate change.

Despite a severe drought and the hottest summer on record, voters in Australia just reinforced a chilly lesson for global campaigners on climate change. The lesson: Cuts in carbon use must be balanced by economic justice. 

In a May 18 election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s center-right coalition won a surprise victory in large part because it pledged fewer restrictions on coal emissions than the Labor Party. Pollsters had missed the fact that voters in the coal-dependent “soot belt” did not want to bear an unfair burden in tackling global warming. Australia is the world’s second-largest exporter of coal for power.

The unexpected election result comes after similar setbacks in other countries that suggest climate harmonization should go hand in hand with social and economic harmonization.

In Washington state last November, for example, voters again shot down a “carbon fee” because it was seen as unfair to working families and small businesses. At the same time in France, the so-called yellow vest protests erupted over a proposed fuel tax that would have placed a heavy toll on rural drivers. President Emmanuel Macron has since retreated on many green policies, learning a hard lesson that the political elite cannot get too far ahead of voters who perceive inequities in solutions to climate change.

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces a legal and electoral rebellion in several provinces against a plan to impose a carbon tax. One big issue: whether government will stick to a promise to recycle all the revenue from a carbon tax back to energy consumers (“equalization payments”).

Few countries have yet to find an equitable allocation of the costs in curbing carbon pollution. In democracies, politicians can differ over details of the shared sacrifice. In Australia, which is the developed country that has been most vulnerable to climate change, compromise may still be possible between political parties. To gain a working majority in Parliament, Prime Minister Morrison will need to cut a deal with smaller parties that advocate strong climate action.

Extreme heat has put Australia’s feet to the fire. Eventually the Aussies may show the rest of the world how to distribute the obligations of creating a clean, green future.

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