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Will Australia’s Election Be a Reckoning for Morrison on Climate?

  • May 20, 2022

Landscapes disappeared under red skies, yellow smoke and a stench of ash that clung to everything. At least 60 million acres — about the size of the United Kingdom — were torched, nearly three billion animals perished or were displaced, and 34 people were killed. Smoke pollution was linked to hundreds more deaths. Damage was estimated at $100 billion.

The smoke choked cities and lungs. It stuck to skin and stung eyes. We packed our cars with all the precious things we could carry, constantly checking our phones for the emergency signal to run.

Turns out, our prime minister had run off already — on a secret family holiday to Hawaii. His office refused to confirm it until pictures surfaced on Instagram showing Mr. Morrison frolicking in Waikiki. Back home, wildlife rescuers uploaded videos of screaming koalas with third-degree burns.

Mr. Morrison acknowledged the “horrendous” toll and conceded that climate change had played a role in the fires, but otherwise deflected responsibility. He cut short his holiday but quipped, “I don’t hold a hose, mate.”

When he visited the scorched town of Cobargo, he was heckled by angry residents.

Today, protesters ambush Mr. Morrison on the campaign trail wearing Hawaiian shirts, the avatar for all of his political failures: a scandal-prone cabinet; the slow pace of the vaccine rollout during the pandemic; a widening gap between inflation and wage growth. Climate change isn’t necessarily the top concern of voters. But it has become a constant source of anxiety as the disasters continue. This year, eastern Australia experienced record rainfall which submerged towns and killed at least 22 people. But hard-hit areas went without adequate relief funds. When government help did not arrive, townships crowd-funded for deliveries by private helicopters. As of last weekend, some towns are underwater for the third time in a year.

Urban voters who once had a home in Mr. Turnbull’s Liberal Party are running angry pro-climate independent campaigns across must-win city seats. Mr. Morrison’s rivals in the center-left Labor Party are playing it safe, voicing qualified support for coal mines while embracing President Biden’s platform of job creation through climate action. Meanwhile, conservative attempts to revive old fears of the net-zero emissions boogeyman are backfiring even in their traditional heartlands.

Yet Mr. Morrison has clung to the old fear-mongering. Australians are learning the hard way, however, that denial offers no protection when floodwaters are rising. In his climate-altered country, Mr. Morrison’s failure to absorb that lesson threatens to sweep him away, too.

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