Australian Carbon Tax Vote: A Very Big Deal

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Credit: Mark Graham/Bloomberg via Getty Images

So maybe there is hope for us yet.

After what one Aussie columnist calls "the dirtiest and most dishonest campaign ever waged before the Australian public," with millions of dollars spent on media ads and climate skeptics flown in from around the world, Australia’s House of Representatives voted yesterday, 74 to 72, to levy a tax on carbon pollution.  The proposal, which was pushed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, will impose a price of $23 on a ton of carbon pollution, starting in 2015.  After 2015, an emissions-trading scheme will be introduced, with the goal of cutting total carbon pollution 5 percent below 2000 levels by 2020.  The legislation still needs to pass the Senate, but because Greens control the balance of power there, that is not likely to be a problem.  Unless something dramatic happens, in a few months Australia will have taken an important first step toward saving itself from the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

This is a big deal. 

Now, it’s true, as opponents to the plan have long pointed out, that setting a measly price of $23 a ton on carbon pollution is hardly going to transform Australia’s fossil-fuel-heavy energy system overnight – much less stop the seas from rising or bring rain to drought-parched farmlands.  Climate change is a global issue – from the point of view of the earth’s climate, a molecule of CO2 emitted in Bejing is the same as a molecule emitted in Sydney.  So that means that Australians could stop burning coal tomorrow and swap all their cars for skateboards, but if China, India, and the developing world doesn’t quit burning coal, the Great Barrier Reef, as well as many other things that Australians hold dear, are likely to vanish.

Still, let’s not get too gloomy here.  The passage of this initiative is still hugely important, if for no other reason than that it shows Big Coal can be rolled.  The coal industry is an even larger part of the Australian economy than it is of the American, and it has an enormous amount of political power.  And just like here in the U.S., there are plenty of shrill politicians in Oz who claim that any new tax will lead to economic ruin.  

And yet supporters of the carbon tax initiative were able to build enough support to pass the initiative anyway. Why? Greed is part of it. Gillard effectively argued that by being excessively dependent on fossil fuels, Australia risks missing out on the billions of dollars that are now flowing into renewable energy research and deployment. And the tax is intelligently structured; with other tax breaks and compensation, the average family is likely to see a benefit of $10.10 a week.

Survival instincts are another part of it. The floods and fires and storms and droughts that Australia has suffered in the last few years have left no doubt in many Australians' minds about just how much is a stake in a super-heated world.

But the biggest reason for the passage of the carbon tax was political courage.  Gillard is fighting for her political life – if the carbon tax goes down, she will likely go down with it (just like her predecessor, Kevin Rudd).  Gillard has not only fought hard for the tax, but she has skillfully framed it as something larger than a fight over nickels and dimes or petty politics.  Last month, as the debate over the legislation began, Gillard told Members of Parliament that they would be judged on their vote by every Australian, "because the final test is not are you on the right side of the politics of the week, or the polls of the year."

"The final test is this: are you on the right side of history?"

Now if only Gillard would ask the same question of President Obama.

The End of Australia: What Climate Change Has in Store for Us by Jeff Goodell