Why Australia’s Climate Bill Matters

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CANBERRA, Australia — For as long as I’ve been in Australia, climate change policy has stymied governments, leading to division, inaction and embarrassment, most recently as the country became a global laggard at last year’s international climate conference in Copenhagen.

That now stands poised to change with the lower house of Parliament passing a bill this week that will finally put Australia on a path toward reducing carbon emissions by a significant amount — 43 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

The bill is expected to pass the Senate next month, after the Labor government secured reluctant support from the Australian Greens, which had pushed for a higher target. And it is being hailed as the most significant piece of climate legislation in a decade, while also being criticized for not going far enough.

Both can be true, of course, and in my conversations this week with experts in both climate science and climate politics, I was struck by their expectation that the legislation would produce momentum and progress.

The first thing they noted: The target itself produces a framework for stability and stepped-up action; enshrining a 43 percent reduction in law gives businesses and local governments the confidence to invest in reducing carbon emissions without worrying that competitors eager to avoid such an expense will be rewarded later by another government that doesn’t think the changes are necessary.

A second element of the legislation that I heard a lot about was a mechanism for independent assessment and improvement of this first step.

As the Climate Council notes in its analysis of the legislation:

  • It hands authority back to an independent group of experts (the Climate Change Authority) to monitor Australia’s progress against the targets, and to help shape the move toward future targets, including what’s expected under the Paris Agreement for 2035.

  • Under the new law, the Minister for Climate Change will be required to report back to Parliament each year on Australia’s progress toward the country’s targets.

What those two elements do is force Australia to continue the conversation, with scientific experts playing a lead role. It’s the kind of thing good governance experts often call for with contentious policy issues, and it helps counter what psychologists who study humanity’s response to risks of all kinds describe as the “single action bias.”

Elke Weber, a professor of psychology at Princeton University who I interviewed for my book (which has been published in Australia and will be out next year in the United States), described the concept as a major impediment to sustained action on big problems like climate change. The idea is that, in response to uncertain, frightening situations, humans tend to simplify their decision-making and rely on one action, without any further action — usually because the first one reduced their feeling of worry or vulnerability.

What makes the climate bill so interesting to me, as a student of risk, is that it builds into its structure a framework for further action, and a trigger that could force that action to continue and build over time. It sets repeated action and adjustment as the default.

Many other pieces of legislation do this too, in Australia and in other countries. The United States is also on the verge of passing landmark climate legislation that will help the country reach its goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030, largely with tax breaks and other incentives that will build momentum over time. But Australia, after years of politicized “climate wars,” seems to have found a model that acknowledges more will have to be done.

It is not a solution so much as the belated beginning of a major transition that the entire world has been slow to embark upon.

“This Climate Bill will not be enough to meet the Paris Agreement goals but it is a huge leap forward and opens a new era of cooperation and constructive policymaking,” said Richie Merzian, the climate and energy program director at the Australia Institute. “There is still a lot of work to go to reverse Australia’s role as the third largest exporter of fossil fuel, but there is hope and momentum that things are finally starting to change.”

Now here are our stories of the week.

Australia and New Zealand

A submarine from the Australian Navy in Perth last year. American officials have been working out the details of partnerships like the AUKUS security pact, which would give Australia technology for nuclear submarine propulsion.Credit…Richard Wainwright/EPA, via Shutterstock
  • U.S. Seeks to Reassure Asian Allies as China’s Military Grows Bolder. The Biden administration says its commitment to the region has only deepened, but critics say the tensions over Taiwan show that Washington needs stronger military and economic strategies.

  • A Large Object Landed on His Sheep Farm. It Came From Space.“It’s not something you see every day on a sheep farm,” a farmer said of the pieces of debris that wound up in rural Australia. They are thought to be from a SpaceX spacecraft.

  • Long a Climate Straggler, Australia Advances a Major Bill to Cut Emissions. Experts said the pledge to reduce emissions by at least 43 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 was both a leap forward and a first step.

  • Review: Black Grace Dances Out a Different Kind of Buzz. This New Zealand company returns to the Joyce Theater with two New York premieres, but neither are as penetrating as “Handgame,” a vintage gem.

  • Pelosi’s Taiwan Visit Risks Undermining U.S. Efforts With Asian Allies. The Biden administration has built an economic and diplomatic strategy in Asia to counter China, assuring friendly countries that the U.S. is in the region for the long haul.

  • Rugby’s Greatest Team Confronts a Worrisome Prospect: Decline. A series of defeats by New Zealand’s All Blacks has led to a humbling drop in the world rankings, and concern that the team might not have what it takes to bounce back this time.

  • Police Seek Help in Deaths of Two Saudi Sisters in Australia. Their bodies lay undiscovered for a month. Weeks later, the police still know little about the women or what happened to them.

Around the Times

Travelers look at the blank departures board at Euston train station in London last month; services were canceled because of a track fire during an extreme heat wave.Credit…Niklas Halle’N/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
  • Stockholm Instead of Rome? October Instead of July? How Heat Waves Are Changing Tourism in Europe. Shifts in travel patterns are likely to become more common in Europe, a region that climate researchers describe as a “hot spot” for severe summer heat.

  • A Stranger Filmed Her on the Train. TikTok Users Decided She Had Monkeypox.With little government guidance on a fast-spreading virus, a new form of social-media vigilantism has emerged.

  • China Sends Ships and Planes Toward Taiwan, Despite Rising Criticism. Japan’s leader called for an immediate halt to the military drills, now in their second day. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said China “will not isolate Taiwan.”

  • Federal Officials Charge Four Officers in Breonna Taylor Raid. The police in Louisville, Ky., fatally shot Ms. Taylor during a nighttime raid on her apartment. Prosecutors said officers had lied in order to obtain a search warrant for Ms. Taylor’s home.

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