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Australian Prime Minister Backs Climate Change


Okay, let's follow up on that Australian prime minister who changed his nation's course on climate change. Kevin Rudd won election after campaigning on a promise to make climate change a priority. And that campaign may have been the first in a developed country where the issue of climate change helped determine the winner.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Sidney.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Here's an inconvenient truth for Australian's former prime minister, John Howard. Maybe he should have agreed to meet with Al Gore when Gore came down under earlier this year.

Mr. MARTIN O'SHANNESSY (Chief Executive, Newspoll): During the early part of 2007, the environment became a more important voting issue than the economy. And I think the writing was on the wall there, and Mr. Howard was very slow to respond to it, and I think it created a great deal of cynicism about his commitment to the future.

SULLIVAN: That's Martin O'Shannessy, chief executive of the Australian opinion research firm, Newspoll.

Mr. O'SHANNESSY: Mr. Howard, our prime minister, continued to be a climate doubter. And it was only in the face of pretty heavy pressure publicly that he switched over and became a climate change touter, but I think it was too late for him on that one. The die was already cast.

SULLIVAN: Especially among younger voters who make up about a third of the electorate who tended to vote for Mr. Howard during the last election in 2004, O'Shannessy says, but turned solidly against him this time around. Howard's workplace policies were one reason they turned. His reluctance to acknowledge the threat posed by climate change was another - and not just for young people.

Mr. BILL McHARG (Businessman): It riled me. It riled me.

SULLIVAN: Melbourne businessman Bill McHarg calls himself a swing voter who has supported Howard's party in the past, but spent $200,000 of his own money this time around to persuade voters in Howard's own district to throw him out.

Mr. McHARG: I was not saying vote Liberal. I wasn't saying vote Labor. In fact, I wasn't endorsing any of the local candidates in John Howard's seat. I was saying vote for the party, the person that you believe will best represent the interests of our planet. Do not vote for John Howard. Put him last.

SULLIVAN: Howard did lose his seat, the first sitting prime minister to do so since 1929. Al Gore's movie and the International Panel on Climate Change's report earlier this year have contributed to Australians' heightened awareness of the challenges posed by climate change. A prolonged drought has focused attention on the issue, too - the worst in more than a century - in a country that's largely desert to begin with, one where many cities now face serious water shortages.

Dr. MICHAEL FULLILOVE (Program Director, Global Issues Program, Lowy Institute): The difference is that, whereas in the past, people might have looked at a drought and said, oh, bloody drought. Now, they look at it and say, bloody global warming.

SULLIVAN: Michael Fullilove is program director for global issues at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

Dr. FULLILOVE: So there's an element of perception as well as the element of reality, but there's no question that people are concerned about it.

(Soundbite of TV news program, "Sky Evening News")

Unidentified Man: This is "Sky Evening News," with Michael Willesee and Susanne Latimore.

SULLIVAN: Last week, newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd showed he understands those concerns.

(Soundbite of TV news program, "Sky Evening News")

Mr. MICHAEL WILLESEE (Newscaster, "Sky Evening News"): Within minutes of the ceremony in Canberra, Mr. Rudd began the process of signing the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

SULLIVAN: Signing onto Kyoto was largely symbolic, since Australia is already on track to achieve its modest Kyoto targets, set before Prime Minister Howard took office. But Howard, like President Bush, refused to sign Kyoto right up to the end, arguing that binding emissions targets could make domestic business less competitive.

Don Henry, executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, says he's delighted Prime Minister Rudd is in Bali and has committed to signing Kyoto.

Mr. DON HENRY (Executive Director, Australian Conservation Foundation): But I think the live and crucial debate here will be Australia needing to do much more to cut our emissions here at home. And I think the big picture there is what is our 2020 target to cut greenhouse pollution going to be?

SULLIVAN: The government hasn't said what that target might be, though it has pledged what Henry calls a modest target of a 60 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Henry says it's a start. He's also encouraged by the response from some in the business community as well.

Mr. HENRY: Let me give you an example. The CEO of one of our biggest banks, Westpac, he started to see that Australian agriculture could be severely impacted. And he said to me, crikeys, we've got huge amounts of investment in agricultural Australia, and I've just realized we're carrying a massive amount of risk. And he said this bank has to pay attention to this issue.

SULLIVAN: Not just for agriculture, but for preserving some of Australia's iconic and lucrative ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef, which brings in billions in tourist revenue each year. Former Prime Minister Howard's skeptical stance on climate change may not have cost him the election, but it certainly didn't help - a lesson some analysts here say politicians abroad should heed as well.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Remember that NPR News is in the midst of a yearlong series on climate change, a series of reports. And you can explore stories on how countries and cultures around the world are reacting and adapting by going to our Web site: npr.org/climateconnections. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.