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.


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-CortezDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters Moore defends Sanders's reputation: 'We don't want the fake, and the phony and the fraudulent' 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 MacronGerman president expresses 'sorrow' for Holocaust, warns 'spirits of evil' are rising Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Apple reportedly dropped plans to let iPhone users encrypt backups | Justices decline facial recognition case | Critics fear Facebook losing misinformation fight | Truce on French tech tax On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Trump at Davos warns Europe on trade | President boasts about US economy to global elite | Experts say Trump trade victories may yield little growth 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.


But astonishingly, nearly all the candidates who hope to run against President TrumpDonald John TrumpKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Kaine: GOP senators should 'at least' treat Trump trial with seriousness of traffic court Louise Linton, wife of Mnuchin, deletes Instagram post in support of Greta Thunberg 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 ObamaKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Former NYT correspondent rips Democrats' 'selective use' of constitutional violations Obama portraits leaving National Portrait Gallery to tour museums across the country MORE’s economists put the economic harm of a ton of CO 2 at $50."

Joe BidenJoe BidenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters George Conway: Witness missing from impeachment trial is Trump 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.