Australia's 'climate wars' truce leaves flood victims in election no-man's land

by Michael Taylor and Seb Starcevic | @MickSTaylor | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 20 April 2022 09:07 GMT

Binnie O'Dwyer surveys the wreckage of her flood-damaged home in Lismore, Australia. March 12, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Elise Derwin

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Despite devastating floods and fires - and more angry voters - climate change is not a major issue in Australia's upcoming May elections

By Michael Taylor and Seb Starcevic

MELBOURNE, April 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As flood waters rose above her knees, Binnie O'Dwyer frantically waded around her submerging home in the eastern Australian town of Lismore, trying to save as many of her favourite possessions as possible.

The mother of two was one of thousands of flood victims forced to flee their homes after heavy rains burst river banks and spilled over levees in late February, leaving entire towns underwater across New South Wales state.

"I'd already grabbed a few of the important things – the passports and birth certificates – and then I was just running around thinking, 'What do I do now? Do I pick my favourite pair of jeans?'," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The chances of me being knocked over and swept away with my belongings was pretty high, so I didn't end up taking very much," said O'Dwyer, an indigenous rights lawyer.

As global warming accelerates, it is bringing fiercer storms, heatwaves, droughts, bushfires - and a growing risk of flooding - in Australia, a major coal producer.

But despite the mounting economic losses and devastation, climate change is struggling to get much traction as an issue in the two main political parties ahead of Australia's general election on May 21.

"Climate was quite a divisive issue at the last election, and both parties are a bit trepidatious about making (it) one of their most prominent issues this election," said Gavan McFadzean, climate change programme manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation.

In Lismore, near the popular tourism hub of Byron Bay, the worst flooding in almost half a century left four dead - and residents frustrated about the lack of meaningful political discussion on clearly growing climate change risks.

With major political parties still promoting fossil fuels, "what it comes down to is they don't actually care about us," said O'Dwyer, a resident of the floodplain town since 1999.
She described the latest deluge as "beyond anything we've ever seen".

'CLIMATE WARS'

An increasing majority of Australians see climate change as a serious threat and would like to ban new coal mines, according to a poll published last year by the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank.

That is especially true among Australians in their 20s or younger, many first-time voters, McFadzean said.

Binnie O'Dwyer walks through her flood-damaged home in Lismore, Australia. March 12, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Elise Derwin

But ahead of May's poll, the two main parties are largely focusing on cost-of-living pressures - especially energy prices - as well as health, economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the competence and suitability of their leaders.

Since the election was called this month, McFadzean said he had yet to hear Prime Minister Scott Morrison mention climate change during campaigning.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese referenced it several times but usually linked to the economy and renewable energy investments, he said.

Albanese has promised to end the "climate wars" - disagreements over the need for action on climate change that have dogged politics in Australia for years.

But Albanese's Labor Party seems wary of pushing action on climate change as strongly as in the last election in 2019, which saw his party defeated, green groups said.

Instead, both main parties are taking a more low-key approach, hoping to appeal both to urban voters who want strong climate action and those in mining states who worry about jobs losses and other economic implications of cutting down on coal.

That has opened space for smaller parties and independent candidates to push their climate credentials, particularly in areas impacted by climate disasters.

Independents and the country's Green party are expected to win a small number of seats but could then push for more ambitious climate policies if the election forces the winning party toward a power-sharing deal to form a government, green groups said.

"There is a strong feeling that in many of those electorates the government hasn't listened (or) done proper relief" - though that doesn't always translate to support for stronger climate policy, said Martijn Wilder, co-founder of climate advisory and investment firm Pollination in Sydney.

But with the cost of extreme weather disasters expected to hit A$100 billion ($74 billion) per year by 2038, "Australia's next government must adopt credible climate policies as a matter of extreme urgency," said Amanda McKenzie, chief executive of the independent advisory Climate Council.

Binnie O'Dwyer walks through her flood-damaged home in Lismore, Australia. March 12, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Elise Derwin

Australia's reliance on coal-fired power makes it one of the world's largest carbon emitters per capita, and both main parties remain wary of upsetting the country's powerful fossil fuel industry, environmentalists said.

The "dominant narrative within the government (is) that you can either have climate change or business profitability", said Mark Howden, director of the climate, energy and disaster solutions institute at Australian National University.

But "increasingly what the rest of the world is realising (is) business profitability goes hand in hand with climate change responses", he added.

FLOOD TOWN

As the flood waters rose in February, O'Dwyer and her boyfriend stayed behind at her home, after sending her two teenage children and the family puppy to safer, higher ground.

They piled many of their possessions on top of kitchen cupboards and piles of boxes – the higher the better - but O'Dwyer knew it was time to save themselves and leave when waters rose thigh-deep.

Upon returning days later, "there was stuff everywhere. We had to climb over things to try to get into the house. It was like it had been through a washing machine ... just total chaos", she said.

Almost two months later, O'Dwyer is camping in the shell of her house, sleeping on a foam mattress donated by a neighbour and relying on a single electrical outlet.

The kitchen and bathrooms have been gutted, walls are still caked with mud and mould, and her children have been forced to temporarily stay with relatives in the neighbouring state of Queensland.

O'Dwyer doesn't know if they'll ever want to return to "flood town" and she has received little help from the government, leaving her feeling abandoned.

"The money is not being spent on us. The money has been spent on the fossil fuel industry," she said.

"Everyone knows about the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change ... causing more extreme weather events - yet this government seems to be in some kind of alternate reality," she added.

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Australia urged to take lead on climate as U.N. barrier reef decision looms

($1 = 1.3428 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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