Kevin Rudd. Photo: AP/Rob Griffith
Kevin Rudd.
Photo: AP / Rob Griffith

Culturally, politically, and spiritually, what country in the world is most like the United States? It’s not Canada and it’s sure not Great Britain. The answer is Australia. Ask anyone who’s been there. It just feels like America there, from the sprawling suburbs to the cars people drive, from the obsession with sports to their unit of currency: the Australian dollar. Add these factors too: both countries were British colonies, both wiped out indigenous peoples, both have big cities in the east and vast frontiers to the west, both have huge coal deposits and per capita greenhouse-gas emissions that lead most of the world, and, in the last several years, both have had conservative national governments that basically deny the reality of global warming. The Aussies R Us!

So how, then, did Australia just complete a national election where the issue of climate change played a central role and may have determined the outcome? How did a country so steeped in America’s brand of fierce self-reliance, consumerism, and fossil-fuel addiction throw out a “climate skeptic” prime minister and hand a landslide victory to a Labor candidate who talked persistently about ratifying Kyoto? And most important, if they can do it Down Under, is there still hope for America?

Feeling the heat

Several factors help explain how a “global-warming candidate,” Labor’s Kevin Rudd, unseated incumbent John Howard after 11 years of conservative rule. But first among them is probably the nation’s nightmarish drought. Beginning in 2002, the drought conditions intensified each year until a staggering 25 percent of all food production was lost in 2007. Emaciated livestock now roam a vast landscape of dry riverbeds. Rice production and wine grapes have been devastated. Food prices have soared and up to 1 percent of the nation’s entire GDP has been lost, according to credible estimates.

With drinking water now in danger of running out in much of the country, and multiple scientific reports linking the dryness to global warming, Australians registered growing concern in opinion polls prior to the Nov. 24 election. But incumbent John Howard vigorously denied any climate connection for years and told voters to simply pray for rain and, if so inclined, change their light bulbs. Labor’s Rudd, however, openly connected the drought to global warming during the campaign and called for clean, efficient energy as a path to preserving public health and the nation’s agricultural heritage.

But drought alone did not push global warming from background noise to a top issue in a country long tolerant of a do-nothing government. Australian journalist Wilson Da Silva, a former president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, says that — ironically — developments in far-off America played a role too. The first was Hurricane Katrina. Among U.S. cities, New Orleans has always been a favorite among Australians, and to watch the horrors of 2005 just as new scientific studies showed a connection between warmer oceans and bigger storms, made a big impression.

Then came “Hurricane Gore.” An Inconvenient Truth was proportionally twice as big a box-office hit Down Under than even in America, and Gore made several high profile trips to the country in its aftermath. “It changed the way many Australians see the world and themselves in it,” says Da Silva.

Aussie business leaders demanded climate action

Also key to the electorate’s changing mood was the fact that major Australian business leaders broke ranks with the Howard government over global warming prior to the vote. American Cathy Zoi, a Gore confidant who spent 12 years in Australia working on energy issues, says beginning in 2006 top businesses began calling for national legislation to cap carbon emissions. Why? “Because Australia is heavily dependent on foreign trade, and leaders could see the inevitable carbon constraints coming through Kyoto or subsequent agreements, and they wanted some certainty and process and predictability to prepare,” says Zoi. “It was the smart business move.”

But even with Katrina and Gore and business support for action on greenhouse gases, it’s unlikely global warming would have been such a driving force in the national election if not for the daily backdrop of brutal, unprecedented drought, says Da Silva. “The drought set the table for all the other pieces,” he says. “So many voters went to the polls with climate at least somewhere on their minds, I think.”

Many Australians are particularly alarmed by climate data suggesting this could be the “new normal.” To paraphrase one noted climate scientist: When there’s a genuine climate shift, you no longer call it drought. We don’t say the Sahara Desert is suffering from drought.

Voters went to the polls wondering if talk of massive and costly desalinization plants along the coastlines, with water then trucked to interior cities, was about to become the unthinkable future.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to quantify the precise impact global warming had on the final vote in Australia. Two other issues — education and the economy — were prime campaign issues too. But the size of the Labor victory has left most observers pointing to climate as a big factor. Labor’s 6 percent rise in the popular vote over the last election was the second-highest rise since WWII. Labor was left with an 86-61 majority in Parliament, and astonishingly, John Howard not only lost the PM slot, he was booted out of office altogether, losing his Parliamentary seat from the Sydney suburbs, the first time that had happened since 1929.

Can it happen in America?

So here’s the big question: can an election like this happen in America? Given all the historic and contemporary parallels between us and the Aussies, can we, too, push climate change from a middle-of-the-pack political issue to the place it belongs: at the urgent center of the current presidential campaign? Again, the eerie parallels suggest it’s feasible. After all, for Americans, Hurricane Katrina not only happened, it happened to us, on our shores. And Al Gore not only happened, he’s bloody one of us. And we’ve suffered long and fitfully under a do-nothing right-winger. And U.S. businesses are starting to call for reasonable action on global warming. Perhaps all we’re missing is a really, really big drought. Oh, wait, we have that, too. Perhaps not as bad as in Australia, but what about those 1 million Californians displaced by wildfires this fall? And the appalling prospect of Atlanta running out of drinking water within months? These drought-driven events are pushing us steadily toward new extremes of suffering and climate consciousness.

So what is it? What’s wrong? Why aren’t we already moving like the Australians? On closer examination I think the answer is obvious. What we’re missing is Kevin Rudd. To his credit, the Labor candidate surprised many political observers when he made climate change one of his core issues. It had never been done before. But Rudd stuck with it, speaking prominently about global warming wherever he went. He ran numerous, expensive radio and TV ads just on climate change. He repeatedly attacked Howard on the matter saying, “there is no more important difference between us than on climate change.” In the process, Rudd more than matched minds with average voters, and he was rewarded handsomely.

Of course John McCain and most of the Democrats running for the White House have great plans to fight global warming, too. But the issue is just one of many for them. And as climate blogger Joe Romm points out, you can’t run effectively on ten issues. You have to pick the two or three that are most important and you communicate those over and over again. None of the Democrats are doing this on climate change like Kevin Rudd did. Even Gore didn’t make it a top issue in 2000. Kerry didn’t in 2004. And now Hillary Clinton, to name one contender, only briefly mentions it during most events.

Yet Clinton complains to global-warming activists that, on the campaign trail, she doesn’t see as much enthusiasm for the climate issue as for other issues. But perhaps if she had more enthusiasm for the issue, it would be mirrored back to her because, make no mistake, Americans have never cared more about the issue or been more educated thanks to near nonstop media coverage of everything from glaciers to sea-level rise.

America needs a climate leader

Bottom line: Americans, like Australians, are ready to be led on global warming. They just need a leader. Wilson Da Silva describes the recent election Down Under as a “perfect storm.” Everything came together: the drought, an incumbent government horrible on global warming, voters restless for action, and a challenger bold enough to make it a core issue. Then, finally, victory. Rudd’s first official act as prime minister was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, committing his country to mandatory reductions in greenhouse gases.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our very own Kevin Rudd burst forth from the presidential primary pack, allowing us to complete the long list of parallels and finally, on the most important issue of our time, become just like the Australians?