Searching for Australia’s Climate Tipping Point

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One of the first stories I wrote when I got to Australia focused on climate change and its damaging impact on the Great Barrier Reef. Four years later, the consequences of a warming planet have only become more visible, with fires, droughts and extreme storms, but Australia’s policy settings have not shifted to match the urgency of the problem.

At the federal level, the government is still tying itself in knots debating whether to commit to a pledge that most developed countries (and a few Australian states) have already embraced: net zero emissions by 2050.

And that’s probably not enough. With just a few days to go before next month’s U.N. climate conference in Scotland, many of Australia’s closest allies — including the United States, Britain and many of its own neighbors in the Pacific — have made clear that the country has fallen behind and must do more to cut its emissions this decade and shift away from its role as a major user and exporter of fossil fuels.

Australia’s defiant inaction is already affecting the country’s image. As I wrote in a news analysis piece this week, at a time when coal is being treated more like tobacco, as a danger wherever it’s burned, Australia increasingly looks like the guy at the end of the bar selling cheap cigarettes and promising to bring more tomorrow.

As Adam Bandt, the leader of the Australian Greens, explained to me in an interview, the world is finally starting to see Australia for what it is: a petro-state, where the coal and gas industries drive policy in defiance of what the world needs to reduce greenhouse gases.

Indeed, the only two countries that ship more carbon-heavy energy around the world are Saudi Arabia and Russia — notorious climate spoilers. Australia is now in that camp.

And, yet, outside of government, urgency is increasing and a lot is already changing. Check out my story on Andrew Forrest from last weekend. He’s trying to decarbonize his giant iron ore mining company by 2030 and turn it into a hydrogen superpower. I spent a week seeing what he’s up to in Western Australia, and while there are enormous challenges ahead, he’s convinced that Australia will eventually be a renewable energy leader, and he’s prepared to invest billions of dollars in trying to make that happen.

Zali Steggall, the independent who unseated Tony Abbott in 2019 with a campaign focused on climate, also told me that she sees room for optimism. There’s more interest in fielding independent candidates in the next election who will campaign for a shift in climate policy. The science on climate has also become even more definitive, prompting a new sense of urgency around the world that, she hopes, will eventually make its way to Australia.

“The day of accountability is coming,” she said.

“Am I frustrated, yes,” she added, “but this is not a battle we can ever quit because the alternative is unfathomable. We just have to keep moving everyone along.”

Clearly, the pace right now is slow, too slow, according to the science.

“We’re in a tipping point between the old and the new,” Mr. Bandt said. “At the moment, the old is fighting for its life.”

The question is: When will newer, cleaner ways of living take over? When will the rate of change speed up in Australia and elsewhere — and will it be soon enough to prevent irreversible damage that would come from forever soaring temperatures?

Now here are our stories of the week.

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