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Australian prime minister’s focus on climate action contributes to his ouster

Australian politicians with climate views similar to Donald Trump take control of government.

Australia's Governor General Peter Cosgrove (right) congratulates new Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison after the latter was sworn into office in Canberra on August 24, 2018. SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
Australia's Governor General Peter Cosgrove (right) congratulates new Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison after the latter was sworn into office in Canberra on August 24, 2018. SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and promote renewable energy did not sit well with right-wing members of his ruling Liberal Party, contributing to his ouster as prime minister on Friday.

Turnbull’s stance on climate change, refugees, and other hot-button issues led to a party revolt by his party’s right-wing colleagues, whose stances are closer to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant and pro-coal policies than their less strident counterparts in the conservative Liberal Party.

The country’s treasurer, Scott Morrison, was sworn in as prime minister on Friday, making him the fourth prime minister of Australia in five years.

Since becoming Australia’s prime minister in September 2015, Turnbull has been trying to craft legislation that would reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The legislation would be designed to help Australia meet its commitment to the goals of the Paris climate agreement, signed in December 2015.

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But the former prime minister could not get the right-wing members of his party to support the effort. Instead of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the more hard-line members wanted to focus on reducing electricity prices for customers.

Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions rose again in 2017, an upward trajectory the country has been on since 2011. The higher emissions are putting the country’s chances of meeting the goals set in the Paris climate agreement in doubt.

But members of Turnbull’s party who prefer coal power plants over subsidies for wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy had threatened to vote against the plan in Australia’s Parliament. In April, a group of 20 members of the Liberal Party coalition government warned Turnbull against the “demonization” of the use of coal for generating electricity.

On Monday, Turnbull abandoned plans for the legislation limiting greenhouse gas emissions, in hope of placating the right-wing members of his party. Turnbull at the time said that most government lawmakers supported the target of reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent below 2005 levels. But that support was not enough.

Turnbull conceded that he could not get the legislation through the House of Representatives where his conservative coalition holds only a single-seat majority. Turnbull’s political calculation on climate policy, however, proved unsuccessful in saving him, as his party’s right-wing insurgents removed him from office on Friday.

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As with the U.S. Congress, efforts to introduce laws that would impose climate change-combating emissions targets have repeatedly frustrated Australian lawmakers.

The debate over climate policy comes as Australia deals with unusually early bushfires in the state of New South Wales. Scientists have described the winter fires as “mind-bending” and “unusual in the extreme,” and say climate change is extending the normal bushfire season, according to The Guardian.

Along with stepping down as prime minister, Turnbull plans to resign from Parliament soon. His resignation will lead to a special election in his Sydney district. The right-leaning Liberal Party holds power as part of a governing coalition with the right-leaning National Party, which represents farmers and rural interests.

The ruling government has trailed the center-left opposition Labor Party in most opinion polls since the last election in 2016. Australians are due to hold a general election in early 2019.

Australia has gone through a period of political instability since Prime Minister John Howard lost power in 2007 after more than 11 years in office. Morrison marks Australia’s sixth prime minister since Liberal Party leader Howard was ousted.

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Meanwhile, Australian Labor Party leader Bill Shorten has spoken out in favor of climate action. “There is no doubt our earth is warming and our seas rising — or that humankind is the cause,” Shorten has said.

The Labor Party’s climate change action plan states: “For Australia, unmitigated climate change will come at a huge economic cost, not least of which will include severe and damaging impacts to the nation’s infrastructure and the death of ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef.”

If the Labor Party were to take control of the government in 2019, the party said it would introduce a “domestic emissions trading scheme” designed to get Australia’s pollution levels back under control. The plan’s second phase would drive a long-term transition in to a clean energy economy.