BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - As Australians head to the polls this week after the country’s hottest-ever summer, Outback farmers — walloped by epic fires, floods and heat waves — are leading the fight against climate change and making it one of the election’s key issues.
With one of the world’s worst pollution records per capita and a prime minister who paraded a lump of coal through Parliament, no one would mistake Australia for a progressive ecological haven.
But after a prolonged drought, raging bush fires and “once-in-a-century” floods, many Australians now fear the country is ill-equipped to tackle climate change.
The northeast battleground state of Queensland bore the brunt of the summer’s extreme climate conditions and is ground zero for changing Outback attitudes.
Insurer AIG estimated that between 2007 and 2016 natural disasters cost the state roughly 11 billion Australian dollars a year ($12 billion), with the bill only increasing since then.
Slash and burn
When Simon Gedda’s family took over a farm about two-hour drive from Rockhampton, Australia’s “beef capital,” 50 years ago, they did what any other Queenslander cattle grazier household would do. They stripped out the trees, cut back the grass and sprayed chemicals to make farming easier.
But rising costs and concern about climate change have prompted Gedda to move away from high-impact methods.
And when a Category 4 cyclone struck his property in 2017, he joined the 5,000-member advocacy group Farmers for Climate Action.
“The headwaters of our creek received 40 inches (100 centimeters) of rain in 14 hours,” he said.
“It wasn’t any old flood. It was something that was totally unbelievable.
“This is exactly what the scientists have been telling us.”
In the face of government inaction, Gedda and other farmers are pushing forward with their own climate initiatives in a bid to protect their livelihoods.
Denis Couture, whose tomato and chili-growing operation in Bowen is a short drive from Australia’s most northerly deepwater coal port terminal, is shunning fossil fuels and using solar panels and batteries.
“Renewable energy in Australia is abundant. There’s wind everywhere, there’s solar everywhere,” Couture said, pointing to the sky above the so-called Sunshine State.
Poor agricultural practices and deforestation have degraded the soil and are major drivers of climate change.
But Queensland farmer Simon Mattsson believes landowners can help by removing carbon from the atmosphere and putting it into the soil.
“If Australia is to have any hope of maintaining good agriculture production, we need a healthy soil,” said Mattsson, who is diversifying his crops to improve soil quality.
Queenslanders are not alone in expressing concern about climate change, or frustration about Canberra’s apparent reluctance to tackle the issue.
A nationwide survey by the Australia Institute found that more than half of respondents believe the country is “facing a climate emergency” and support more policy action.
The push for change is so strong that analysts believe climate policies by Australia’s two major parties — the ruling right-wing Liberal-National coalition and left-leaning Labor — might determine this and future elections.
But Queensland is also a center for coal mining. More than 20,000 people are employed in the sector in the central region of the state alone.
Even politicians who accept the scientific evidence on climate change are reluctant to put those jobs at risk or risk donations from the mining industry and its unions.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said Australia will meet its international obligations under the Paris climate agreement, but not “in a way that puts our kids’ economic future at risk.” His party’s hard right ousted his predecessor, Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in August, amid plans to embed carbon emission targets in law.
Labor, meanwhile, has committed to sourcing 50 percent of energy from renewables by 2030. But the party, backed by trade unions, is also cautious about plans to fully phase out mining.
How both parties fare in Saturday’s vote could determine their environmental policies, and reshape how they campaign in rural areas in future elections.
“I think that climate change is right smack in the middle of the electoral agenda from now on,” said Griffith University’s Queensland political analyst Paul Williams.
“Any major party that ignores it will not be taken seriously.”