Australia Faces Uphill Battle to Address Climate Change

For more than a year the globe has grappled with a novel coronavirus that has killed over 3 million people and sickened many more.

The pandemic consumed the efforts of many nations that struggled to steady their economies and keep inundated health care facilities functioning. But with COVID-19 vaccines gaining regulatory approvals and access to the shots expanding, some are looking at 2021 with renewed hope of climate action.

One country that will likely face calls to action is Australia.

Despite a growing number of citizens who believe the effects of climate change are real, Australia is largely seen as falling behind other countries in its climate change pledges.

“I just really wouldn’t expect Australia to be a leader on this front,” says Lachlan Carey of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s going to have to be sort of pulled kicking and screaming into any serious climate action.”

Australia’s Climate Change Views

Of developed countries, Australia is one of the most at-risk for impacts of climate change. Yet it ranked second to last on climate change policy in the Climate Change Performance Index 2021 report.

Further, Australia’s citizens fall in the lower range of countries when asked if they believe climate change is real, according to data from the 2021 Best Countries report. With roughly 82% of respondents in Australia agreeing with the statement, “The effects of climate change are real,” Australia’s results line up with countries like Sweden, Norway and Russia and are several percentage points lower than the global average of agreement, which was 89%.

Just 85% of respondents in the United States said they believe the effects of climate change are real, while respondents in countries annually affected by severe weather had the highest levels of agreement with the statement; 96% in Kenya and nearly 97% in Indonesia.

Australia’s results from the Best Countries data are roughly in line with polling from the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank based in Canberra. The institute’s 2020 “Climate of the Nation” report found that 79% of Australians believe that climate change is occurring, which is the report’s highest result since 2012.

Catastrophic bush fires in 2019 claimed dozens of lives and brought renewed attention to the effects of climate change, says Richie Merzian, the director of Australia Institute’s Climate and Energy Program.

“The felt experience of climate change is coming through in our surveys and polls, and that finds that more Australians are feeling the impacts of climate change now, and that is driving a more consistent push for climate action,” he says.

But it’s hard to know if events like the deadly bush fires or more recent flooding have a lasting impact on public opinion.

“Evidence about the impact of extreme weather events suggests that there can be an impact on some people in the short term but that influence decays over time, the further they get away from that severe weather event,” says Rebecca Colvin of Australian National University. “For other people, they can be totally transformative, depending on their experience.”

Australia’s conservative government has long been seen as unwilling to take influential climate action, and its economy, dependent on fossil fuels, is a major reason why. The country is one of the biggest exporters of coal in the world.

“That puts Australia in a very tough position of, how do you take action on climate change, without undermining one of your key sources of export revenue, and our solution to that has been to try and avoid the question,” says Carey of CSIS’s Energy Security and Climate Change Program, and who is from Australia.

Colvin says some use the term “carbon entanglement” to describe the government and coal industry’s interests.

“The influence of the sector in the public sphere is very much in pursuit of the interest for the sector, and not necessarily — not at all — looking for the public good,” Colvin says.

International Pressure

While more Australians are acknowledging the effects of climate change in recent years, pressure from nations could be what the Australian government needs to propel it into taking substantial action on climate change.

“Australia is a middle-income country, really, but we like to think we can play with the big kids,” says Merzian, who suggests that larger economies can create change in the country.

As one of the largest exporters of fossil fuels, Australia relies heavily on trade and can therefore be influenced by other countries, he says. China, Japan and South Korea — three nations that have goals to reach net zero emissions — are some of Australia’s biggest coal customers.

“The government kind of knows it will have to ride the international trends,” Merzian says. “Allies are moving, and they’re not just moving more towards climate action. They’re driving the ambition towards climate action.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that the country’s goal is to reach net-zero emissions as soon as possible, preferably by 2050. But that hasn’t translated into federal policies, according to Colvin of ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy.

“It’s a very strong sense that Australia is not well-regarded internationally for our climate action,” Colvin says.

On the other hand, Carey of CSIS says that negotiations from other countries on climate efforts could make some difference but that domestic pressure could have a larger impact.

“Really countries have to figure this out each on their own in terms of their local politics, and G20 and [United Nations] pressure might be able to make a bit of a difference at the margin, but it’s really not the driving force in these actions, unfortunately,” Carey says.

Big Year Ahead on Climate

This week world leaders will gather at U.S. President Joe Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate. Australia’s Morrison, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping of China, have been invited to attend.

While allies will likely be aligned with the Biden administration’s goals for the summit, it is unknown what could come from other countries, particularly China, Eurasia Group Vice Chairman and Senior Advisor Gerald Butts said this week during a press event.

Butts said China could be a “big wildcard” but noted that he expects the country to say “very little” during the summit. While Xi could have aggressive climate commitments to make before the United Nations conference in Glasgow later this year, he likely won’t be announcing them at Biden’s summit.

“There is a 0% chance — and trending down — that [Xi] wants to be seen to make those commitments at the behest of Joe Biden and the United States,” Butts said.

But some say Biden’s administration, which has said that climate change will be a top priority while he is in office, along with other countries could influence Australia’s next steps on climate change.

“I would expect to see a pretty heavy hand placed on the scales by Biden — but in particular his special envoy, John Kerry — to get Australia and other large emitting countries to commit to both a 2050 net zero target but then sort of intervening targets leading up to that, particularly 2030 targets and probably sectoral targets, as well,” Carey says.

The White House called its summit a “key milestone on the road to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November in Glasgow.” That conference is the successor to the landmark Paris meeting of 2015, where global leaders made the goal of keeping global temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, though countries were encouraged to aim for a 1.5 degrees goal.

Carey says he expects to see countries, particularly across Europe, shift their focus from COVID-19 pandemic recovery plans to climate investments leading up to the conference in November.

“All of this is really about coming away with some pretty tangible outcomes at COP26, and how tangible those will be remains to be seen. I’m personally worried that it will be more targets and timetables rather than real dollars and action plans … But I think there’s a huge amount of momentum and pressure building with COP26 as the sort of end goal for all of it,” Carey says.

The Best Countries report is an annual global survey of more than 17,000 people in 36 countries across Europe, North and South America, Asia and Africa. The report and subsequent rankings are based on how people’s perceptions define countries in terms of a number of subjective characteristics. The 2021 report focuses on perceptions of 78 nations.

More from U.S. News

Extreme Weather Pushes Climate Change to the Top of Public Debate in Australia

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The 25 Best Countries in the World

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