Four high-stakes elections

Source: By Somini Sengupta, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, October 13, 2022

Here’s what key votes around the world mean for climate action. Or inaction.

The New York Times; Shutterstock

We often hear about tipping points in the physical climate of planet Earth. There are political tipping points, too.

Elections can put a heavy finger on the scales of climate action.

Consider the consequences of two recent votes — the federal election in Australia and the Conservative Party leadership contest in Britain — and the potential consequences of two upcoming ones: a presidential runoff this month in Brazil and U.S. midterms in November.

All these countries matter hugely in climate terms. Australia, Britain and the United States are among history’s biggest emitters. Brazil contains the largest share of the Amazon rainforest, which stores vast amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide for the rest of the world.

Australia

In May, voters ousted the conservative coalition that had championed coal and gas and made Australia one of the climate laggards of the world. Within weeks, a new government led by the Labor Party had updated the country’s international climate targets under the Paris accord.

Then, in September, the new Parliament enshrined into law a government pledge to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent by 2030.

Admittedly, it was only a first step. The government has neither detailed exactly how it would reach that goal, nor how to pay for it. Still, as my colleague in Sydney, Damien Cave, wrote, it gave businesses a clear signal to invest in reducing their emissions. And, it gave an independent panel of experts the authority to measure the country’s progress.

Last week, the government also announced a plan to stanch the loss of Australia’s spectacular diversity of plants and animals. Money remains a big question mark. Conservationists said the government would need to spend far more than the $146 million it has allotted to conservation.

Britain

Elections there brought a very different change of direction.

No sooner had Liz Truss been elected head of the Conservative Party — and thus, prime minister — than she turned her energies to looking for more oil and gas in the North Sea. The government opened a new licensing round to allow energy companies to explore for untapped oil and gas fields. Energy security is the government’s argument. Climate campaigners point out that new drilling wouldn’t address short-term energy costs (it takes years to explore and extract) and would compromise Britain’s climate targets.

The government also said it would create investment zones with “liberalized planning rules.” That immediately set off worries from big conservation groups that the government would loosen environmental standards and fast-track big development projects. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds called it “an attack on nature.” The National Trust, a conservation group, criticized the proposed investment zones as “a free-for-all for nature and heritage.”

Brazil

On Oct. 30, the right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro faces off against his leftist challenger and former Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The fate of the Amazon rainforest isn’t the only thing at stake. As my colleague Jack Nicas wrote, the future of Brazil’s democracy itself could hang in the balance if Bolsonaro loses but refuses to accept the vote result.

Deforestation in the Amazon has soared to a 15-year high during Bolsonaro’s tenure. He has weakened environmental enforcement and has sought to open the Amazon to mining and ranching.

The Climate Team’s Manuela Andreoni, also based in Rio, pointed out that Brazil last week elected the most conservative Congress since the return of democracy in the late 1980s. A second Bolsonaro administration would find it easier to enact laws that further destroy the Amazon.

Lula had a mixed record on the environment during his two terms in office. This time around, he’s leaning into a climate-friendly agenda, incorporating several proposals from environmentalists into his agenda, including the creation of new protected areas and Indigenous reserves.

The United States

As for my own country, the United States, the election of President Biden in 2020 brought the United States back into the Paris climate accord and yielded, after months of negotiations in the Senate, a $370 billion climate law.

Now come midterm congressional elections, on Nov. 8. Should the Republicans gain control of Congress, they could affect climate policies in the short term, such as weakening the ability of the Securities and Exchange Commission to enforce climate disclosure regulations, as my colleague Lisa Friedman pointed out.

Equally important, state legislative races this time around are critical. State governments increasingly shape voting laws, gun policy, public health and other issues dominating the lives of Americans, as Nick Corasaniti wrote here.