Is lagging on climate change a political liability?

Two politicians known to oppose action on climate change – Canada’s Stephen Harper and Australia’s Tony Abbott – have been displaced. What does this say about climate as a voter issue?

justin trudeau
Canada's new Prime Minister, who replaced Stephen Harper earlier this month. With close ties to the Albertan oil industry, Prime Minister Harper was an established friend of fossil fuel. arindambanerjee /

Climate reformers woke up on Tuesday with a reason to smile.

North of the 49th parallel, Canadian voters turfed the decade-old government of Stephen Harper. With close ties to the Albertan oil industry, Prime Minister Harper was an established friend of fossil fuel. As leader of the former Canadian Alliance Party, Harper in 2002 had gone as far as to describe the Kyoto Protocol as a “socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.”

Harper’s political demise comes shortly after fellow climate skeptic, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, was removed from office in September by a disgruntled party caucus. The result is that, just over a month before the official start of the Paris climate conference, two of the most important climate policy obstructionists among world leaders no longer lead their governments.

Do these abrupt changes in Canadian and Australian leadership signal that anti-climate stances increasingly make bad politics? And, are there broader lessons we can learn for next year’s US presidential election?

A stretch

For those hopeful about the prospects for action on climate change, the departure of Harper and Abbott from the world’s climate stage is unequivocally good news.

Both leaders had a history of throwing roadblocks into global climate negotiations, and each had pushed tepid climate policies domestically. Their policies and statements led activist Naomi Klein to characterize them as leading climate “villains.”

From a global perspective, these two countries’ lack of activity on climate is significant: in terms of total greenhouse gas emissions, Canada and Australia rank as the ninth and 18th largest emitters, and, collectively, they account for about 2 per cent of global emissions.

At the same time, it’s a stretch to suggest that either leader was pushed out of office specifically because of their anti-climate positions.

Grassroots pressure?

Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, won the leadership from Tony Abbott despite his pro-climate leanings rather then because of them. Turnbull had famously been replaced as opposition leader by Tony Abbott in 2009 when he pushed the Liberal Party to support the Labor government’s emissions trading proposal. At the time, he proclaimed that he would “not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.”

  Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, inherited an unambitious climate policy. Image: David Gray/Reuters

Six years later, Turnbull finds himself doing exactly that. In a bid to gain the support of fractious party members, he has promised to leave in place Abbott’s unambitious Direct Action policy. Under Direct Action, which replaced the country’s carbon price, the Australian government will pay private actors to reduce their carbon emissions through a competitive bidding process. If there is hope for a more muscular climate action, it’s that Turnbull will take advantage of latent provisions in the current Direct Action legislation to ratchet up the policy’s ambition.

In Canada, voters rejected Harper for a litany of reasons – climate and the environment were just one of many. Political opponents have long excoriated the Harper government for its poor environmental record. Yet, climate change never broke through during the long election campaign.

Incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to deliver ambitious climate policy, probably a federalist policy that coordinates provincial-level carbon pricing strategies. But many in his party are still smarting after Canadian voters resoundingly rejected their proposed revenue-neutral carbon tax during a 2008 federal election.

Climate opinion polls tell a very similar story. In Canada, public concern with the environment has grown, but only 11 per cent of Canadians cite the environment as the most important issue facing the country today. In Australia, this number is 9 per cent.

Just over a month before the official start of the Paris climate conference, two of the most important climate policy obstructionists among world leaders no longer lead their governments.

So, while there are active and perhaps growing political forces in each country pushing political leaders to take action on climate change, there is little evidence that any policy changes we do see in the near future will be the direct result of bottom-up pressures from their electorates.

The upshot is that climate policy is likely to move forward in Canada and Australia, as political leaders unwilling to take action are being replaced by those more inclined to engage on the issue.

But, the upended political leaders did not lose power because of their positions on climate change. And, although the timing of these leadership transitions is fortuitous as nations gather next month in Paris to hash out an international accord, there is little to suggest that they foretell a radical shift in the politics of climate change across advanced economies.

Marginal voter issue with huge ramifications

This conclusion leads us back to the United States, and the upcoming presidential election. Is there anything to be learned from these recent political happenings in Canada and Australia? Specifically, do candidates that stake out positions that oppose moving forward with climate policy, let alone positions that question its basic scientific veracity, risk losing voter support?

This is an important question given the strong opposition to climate action voiced by virtually the entire Republican primary field, and the efforts by many of the Democratic candidates to make climate change a central issue during this election cycle.

Republican candidates for president generally oppose policies to reduce greenhouse gases and some question the basic science of global warming. Image: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters


In short, we think the answer is no. Although recent public opinion polling does indicate a growing belief that climate change is real, and people do indicate that they are more likely to vote for a candidate that favors action on climate change, the issue remains a marginal one for most voters.

For example, according to a September survey from Gallup, just 2 per cent of the American public state that pollution or the environment is the most important problem facing the country (significantly less than that in Canada and Australia). For now, at least, climate change remains a marginal issue for most of the US electorate.

None of this is to suggest that the stakes of the 2016 presidential election are anything but extremely high for US climate policy. Quite the contrary. The outcome of the election will determine if the United States retrenches from the policies and accomplishments of the Obama administration, or moves instead to sustain them, and perhaps even extend efforts to more aggressively address this challenge.

The Conversation

David Konisky, Associate Professor, Indiana University, Bloomington and Matto Mildenberger, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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