Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, lost his post today, after members of his own Liberal Party abandoned him in a parliamentary vote. Malcolm Turnbull, who was the country’s minister for communications until withdrawing from Abbott’s cabinet on Monday, will be the new prime minister.
The change will have complex implications for Australia’s climate change policy. Abbott is—to put it plainly—a denier; before he became prime minister, he described climate change science as “absolute crap.” Although his rhetoric softened once he took the reigns of power, his policies demonstrated how little he worries about human-induced global warming, despite its consequences for his continent.
In 2014, Abbott abolished Australia’s two-year-old carbon tax, an initiative undertaken by his predecessor Julia Gillard of the Labor Party. (The Australian Liberal Party is to the political right of the Labor Party.) Abbott described repealing the legislation—which had established the country as a global leader in reducing carbon emissions—as one of his most important acts. He has repeatedly contested any suggestion that extreme weather events are linked to human activities. Abbott appointed climate change deniers to key government positions. He attempted to eliminate the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which helps develop the green energy sector Down Under. Compared to its peer countries, Abbott’s government made an exceedingly modest carbon-reduction commitment as part of the preparations for the upcoming Paris climate summit.
Turnbull, in stark contrast, has a history of courageously standing up for climate change action. The banker-turned-politician lost control of the Liberal Party in 2008, when his fellow conservative politicians attacked his support for a carbon-emissions trading plan. At the time, Turnbull told his colleagues, “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.” They promptly replaced him with Abbott.
When Turnbull returned to parliament, he attacked Abbott’s failure to lead on global warming. In 2009, he called the prime minister’s climate change policy “bullshit” in the Sydney Morning Herald. (And I thought American political discourse was crude…) Two years later, Turnbull criticized a “campaign against the science of climate change” led by fossil-fuel interests.
Despite these favorable signs, it’s too soon to celebrate Turnbull’s ascent to power as the answer to Australia’s climate policy problem. He has so far promised to continue with the Liberal Party’s current (non-) policy on climate change, suggesting that his colleagues voted him into power despite his views on global warming, not because of them.
This bargain—keep your mouth shut about climate change and we’ll let you be prime minister—is a depressing reminder of just how low climate change is on the political agenda in most countries. Even the parties that deny the science or oppose policies to mitigate the damage don’t care enough to base their votes on the issue. Accepting climate science simply isn’t the litmus test that it should be, in Australia and around the world.
Nevertheless, replacing Abbott with Turnbull must be viewed as a positive, even if it’s a baby step. While the underlying political dynamics in the Liberal Party have changed very little, the new prime minister’s rhetoric alone might help move the country forward. As The Guardian wrote, Turnbull will “have to pretend he likes the government’s climate change policy while working assiduously to make the policy work more in line with his principles.”
The Paris climate summit begins in less than three months. We should know by then whether Australia’s Liberal Party is moving toward Turnbull or vice versa.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.