Beyond U.S., Climate Politics Stir Parallel Battles

October 23, 2012

Last autumn should have been a high point in the career of Julia Gillard. Instead, Australia’s prime minister found herself trapped in a script familiar to many in the United States.

In February 2011, Gillard proposed an ambitious plan (PDF) to establish a market-based trading program for carbon emissions. Just as health care reform fueled Tea Party outrage in the U.S., the proposal similarly incensed a conservative opposition in Australia. Minority Leader Tony Abbott — who has dismissed climate science as “crap” — called for a “people’s revolt” against the measure. After the legislation narrowly cleared parliament in November, conservatives turned the plan into a rallying cry, embracing repeal as a central plank of their 2013 platform.

One year later, Australia’s bruising fight over cap-and-trade stands as a reminder that despite broad scientific consensus on global warming, an unsettled political debate over the issue is not unique to the U.S.

The conservative backlash in Australia has led to a shift in public opinion. In June, a poll from the country’s Lowy Institute for International Policy found that 63 percent of Australians now oppose the new climate change law, with 57 percent of respondents in favor of eliminating the cap-and-trade plan. The same poll (PDF) found that little more than a third of the population, 36 percent, now support “the most aggressive form of action” to fight global warming, down from 68 percent in 2006.

Fueling the debate in Australia, where 80 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from coal, are groups that share many of the same doubts about climate science as do critics in America. One such organization, the Galileo Movement, says its mission is “to expose misrepresentations of global warming,” and even counts a leading American contrarian on the issue, Fred Singer, as an independent adviser.

Australia is hardly alone. In Canada, home to the world’s third largest oil reserves, the debate over climate politics is similarly split along partisan lines. While 91 percent of self-identified liberals believe global warming is occurring, just 64 percent of conservatives held the same view, according to a 2011 survey from the Brookings Institution (pdf).

That divide has contributed to a standoff over climate policy, as well as ongoing feuds between scientists and the government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In May, for example, the nation’s environment minister accused several environmental groups of money laundering and influence peddling in an effort to obstruct energy exploration in Alberta’s oil sands. Harper — who has said a carbon tax would “screw everybody” — has also trimmed spending on research and technology, leading scientists to accuse the government of “a systemic attack on science” during protests in front of the nation’s parliament this past summer. Meantime “a few hundred” elected leaders have signed onto a “no climate tax pledge” from Americans for Prosperity, the group’s president, Tim Phillips, told FRONTLINE.

In Britain, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has broken with his party’s past positions and embraced a green energy agenda. Nonetheless, criticism and doubt about climate change remain part of the national conversation around the issue. Earlier this month, for example, a study led by researchers at Oxford University found that British newspapers were more likely to “include skeptical voices” in their coverage of climate change than media in any other nation besides the U.S.

Climate scientists in Britain have also faced similar attacks as have their counterparts in Australia, Canada, and the U.S. In February, for example, the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific community, was assailed in a report from the Global Warming Policy Foundation for stirring unneeded alarm over global warming. In its critique, the conservative think tank founded by Nigel Lawson, a chancellor of the exchequer under Margaret Thatcher, wrote that researchers within the Royal Society seek “to conjure up … a stream of apocalyptic visions with which to assail the public.”

Riley Dunlap, an Oklahoma State University sociologist who studies political polarization around climate change, says nations with the strongest opposition to climate science share three key traits: a heavy reliance on fossil fuels, “strong free market governments,” and a “staunch conservative movement.”

“You put those three together and you definitely in these days [are] going to have a very staunch climate change denial campaign,” says Dunlap.

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication sees cultural forces at work. Australia, Britain, Canada, and the U.S., he notes, are each home to populations with deeply “individualistic” world views. When it comes to addressing issues such as climate change, he says,  those groups are often more likely than not to “see government as the problem, never the solution.”

“We just don’t see the same kind of phenomenon playing out in Latin America, or in Europe, or in much of Asia, which obviously are completely different cultural contexts.”

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