Lessons from Australia: Voters put pocketbooks over climate change, again

Lessons from Australia: Voters put pocketbooks over climate change, again
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Liberal media and political pundits are shocked — shocked! — that Australia’s coal-loving conservative prime minister won reelection. Having recently suffered droughts and heat waves, the nation was expected to oust the ruling party in favor of a Labor candidate who promised to attack climate change.

The win by Scott Morrison undid the chattering classes who believed polls showing his opponent with a comfortable lead and who assumed enlightened voters down under would throw themselves in front of the warming calamity posed by fossil fuels.

Turns out Australians, like voters elsewhere, are more interested in the here and now of rising incomes and employment.

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The country has enjoyed a spectacular 27 years of growth, heavily benefiting from its export trade with China. About one-fifth of Australia’s GDP comes from exports; it is the second-largest coal exporter in the world, and now the top exporter of LNG. It seems voters were reluctant to pull the plug on success.

Morrison’s challenger, Bill Shorten, went all in on climate change remedies, pushing for electric cars and “clean transport infrastructure” and promising to reduce emissions 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. He also ran on a typical liberal agenda of closing tax loopholes and hiking spending.

But his climate program was uppermost, given that two-thirds of Australian voters rank global warming as their country’s biggest threat, ahead of terrorism or cyber intrusions. Given that level of anxiety, what could go wrong?

This same thing seems to happen over and over; voters “virtue signal” their concern about climate change, but end up putting economic interests first. Australia is the latest example, and an interesting one in that surveys showed anxiety about warming at the highest level in more than a decade, with 61 percent of voters saying it should be addressed even if remedies were expensive. 

But, Australia is not unique. In the United States, after all, polling consistently shows Americans concerned about climate change and enthusiastic about measures to address it, like carbon taxes. A poll earlier this year found a record 73 percent of the country convinced that global warming is happening and 62 percent believing it is caused by humans. 

And yet, as recently as the 2018 midterm elections, exit polls showed voters ranking climate threats low down their list of concerns, way behind healthcare, immigration, the economy and gun policy.

The seeming disconnect in Australia’s election surfaced last year in Washington state, when 57 percent of voters defeated a proposed carbon emissions tax. Only two of the states’ counties —including the one that hosts Seattle — voted in favor of the measure, despite support from the Democrat governor and from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Analysts suggest many reasons for these contradictory outcomes, including that people are reluctant to admit climate skepticism to survey-takers. It’s also possible that the hysteria over climate change, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezFive takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? Ocasio-Cortez to endorse Sanders for president MOREdire predictions that “the world is going to end in twelve years if we don’t address climate change,” cause voters to tune out. Such alarmism has become like a Gregorian chant: slightly ominous background noise.

But, more likely, votes reflect reasonable concerns about the costs of fighting climate change. Higher subsidies for alternative energy, taxes on fossil fuels and other measures raise the cost of living. Most people protect their pocketbooks. Look at the yellow vest movement in France that began with anger over Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronUS should support, but also prod, Ukraine Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill Trump selects Grenell as special envoy for Serbia, Kosovo peace talks MORE’s increased tax on gasoline and diesel fuel.

Like the Labor Party in Australia and like Macron, Democrats in the U.S. today are pushing climate change policies that will cost taxpayers more. The Green New Deal has been mercilessly scorned by conservatives, and rightly so. It envisions a monstrous reorganization of our economy, at an equally monstrous cost. It is a program so vast in reach — demanding we rebuild every structure in the country, redo our agricultural sector, remove all fossil fuels, overhaul our transportation network, create social justice, all in 10 years — that it begs for derision.

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But astonishingly, nearly all the candidates who hope to run against President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE in 2020 have jumped aboard this boondoggle, which is estimated to cost between $51 trillion and $93 trillion. Sober analysis of the cost of replacing fossil fuels with renewables under the GND runs from $83 to $285 per ton of carbon dioxide, but those figures assume vast improvements in batteries and other unrealistic expectations. Even so, the cost outweighs the benefit; as Greg Ip wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaIraq is not yet lost, but if we continue to ignore it, it soon will be Obama praises marathon runners Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei for 'remarkable examples of humanity's ability' Each of us has a role in preventing veteran suicide MORE’s economists put the economic harm of a ton of CO 2 at $50."

Joe BidenJoe BidenWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE plunged into hot water recently when an adviser suggested he might favor a “middle ground” on fighting climate change. Heather Zikel, who is working on Biden’s climate agenda, said he favored re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement, as well as renewing the rules and regulations on emissions that had been imposed by the Obama administration. Progressive rivals jumped on the comments, forcing Biden to backtrack and assert his green credentials. The furor shows just how entrenched Democrats are on this issue.

That isn’t surprising, of course, since Democrats are courting millennials, who are concerned about global warming and whose influence is growing along with their share of the electorate. In 2020, millennials will close in on Boomers, with about 27 percent of the electorate compared to 28 percent.

It may not be surprising, but it is dangerous. Biden is courting the blue-collar voters who defected to Trump in 2016. They are unlikely to put global warming above rising jobs and wages, which an aggressive climate agenda will ask them to do. Biden is right to search for the middle ground, but it could cost him the nomination.

Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. For 15 years, she has been a columnist for The Fiscal Times, Fox News, the New York Sun and numerous other organizations. Follow her on Twitter: @lizpeek.