Voters will welcome strong action on climate

John Howard’s failure to address people’s underlying concerns about climate change dangers was a principal cause of his downfall. Kevin Rudd should heed the warning. [1 January 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Why did Australians turn against the Howard government in 2007?

The big election issue for John Howard was low unemployment and a growing economy, while for Labor it was workplace relations. For my money the big election issue was neither of these things, but rather something much bigger and more deep-seated: anxiety about our climate.

While Australians were becoming increasingly troubled about climate change, John Howard seemed to be doing all he could to avoid discussing it. Something had to give.

When we voted, nearly ten years had passed since the signing of the landmark 1997 climate agreement in Kyoto, Japan, when all the developed nations, including Australia and the United States, agreed to place binding limits on carbon emissions.

Kyoto wasn’t perfect, but it was as good as you get in an imperfect world. It kick-started the long journey to reverse greenhouse gas pollution and stop the planet getting hotter. In fact, John Howard said in 1997 it was an excellent agreement.

But his natural suspicion of scholarship was to get the better of him. In 2001 George Bush’s US administration refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Ignoring scientific advice, Howard listened only to those who said there wasn’t a problem. In 2002, he too turned his back on Kyoto, believing it would die without US support.

Howard was re-elected in 2004 on the strength of his economic management. But the climate fuse was smouldering in the electorate. During Howard’s final term of office, it would make his economic credentials appear pointless and irrelevant.

It became clear he had misjudged Kyoto when, with other nations continuing to come on board, the treaty came into force in 2005. Then in 2006 Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, attracted audiences of millions, and former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern warned of the cost of inaction on climate change.

Early in 2007 the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported overwhelming evidence of human influence on climate. And by November Australian electors had had enough, voting for action. They had left John Howard behind.

There are lessons here for our new crop of leaders.

Ignoring global warming or lowering its priority will put political jobs at risk. Conversely, voters will welcome well considered, honestly presented long-term strategies to fix the problem.

Experiences in wartime and economic depression have shown us that such strategies can hold people’s support even if they come at an economic cost.

If the new generation of politicians can grasp that, we’ll be a whole lot better off.

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