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Australia’s Prime Minister Ignored the Climate. Voters Could Make Him Pay.

Australia is a land of portent for the many dangers posed by climate change. The fires, storms, heat waves and other catastrophes that climatologists predict for the planet are already routine here. They also loom over national elections on May 21.

Not for the first time. Two of the country’s last three elections hinged in some measure on the climate-versus-jobs debate, with Mother Nature losing out. But recently the political temperature has changed. The rising toll exacted by extreme weather — particularly mega-fires in 2019 and 2020 — is resonating with the public.

That’s bad news for Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Climate inaction helped to propel Mr. Morrison to the leadership of the conservative Liberal-National coalition in 2018, but he’s in a tough fight now. Polls this week showed the opposition Labor Party with 51 percent of votes, to 49 percent for the coalition. If that bears out, Australia may serve not merely as a preview of climate peril, but of the risks faced by politicians who shrug it off.

Ignoring climate concerns wasn’t always a weak point for Mr. Morrison. The coalition government that he now leads was first elected in 2013 in part on a promise to rescind attempts at carbon pricing by the previous Labor government. This policy won support from the mining lobby and voters who were fed fearful rhetoric about environmentalism’s relentless creep on local industry and jobs. It was an effective strategy in a country that is a major exporter of fossil fuels and home of the world’s largest coal port. A belt of parliamentary seats runs through communities where well-paid jobs in mines represent rare and precious economic opportunity and carry enough weight to influence elections.

Mr. Morrison became prime minister in an internal party coup. The moderate policy ambitions of his more liberal colleague and predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, which included action on climate, fatally alienated him from caucus allies to his right, especially those with links to the fossil fuel lobby. Mr. Morrison stared down pro-climate caucus rivals and vaulted into office.

Australians didn’t know much about Mr. Morrison when he contested his first election as prime minister in May 2019. He’d only been in office nine months. But he had provided ample clues, scolding students who protested his government’s climate inaction to leave it to the grown-ups, suggesting electric vehicles posed a threat to fun weekends, and brandishing a lump of coal in Parliament like a beloved pet rock in 2017 when he was treasurer.

Lagging behind Labor for most of that campaign, Mr. Morrison was saved when an ill-conceived convoy of well-funded environmentalists traveled to mining towns already struggling with high unemployment to campaign against a major coal project. Mr. Morrison reframed anti-climate politics as pro-jobs, won the mining towns and held onto power by one seat.

Politically rewarded, he has relentlessly maintained his anti-climate brand, balking at defining a path toward net-zero targets, and embracing coal mines.

But the great fires that swept across Australia soon after Mr. Morrison’s victory changed the country. From July 2019, dry conditions and high heat — local symptoms of climate change — kindled mega-fires across the island continent. Bone-dry pastures, riverbeds and forests offered no resistance.

Landscapes disappeared under red skies, yellow smoke and a stench of ash that clung to everything. At least 60 million acres — about the size of the United Kingdom — were torched, nearly three billion animals perished or were displaced, and 34 people were killed. Smoke pollution was linked to hundreds more deaths. Damage was estimated at $100 billion.

The smoke choked cities and lungs. It stuck to skin and stung eyes. We packed our cars with all the precious things we could carry, constantly checking our phones for the emergency signal to run.

Turns out, our prime minister had run off already — on a secret family holiday to Hawaii. His office refused to confirm it until pictures surfaced on Instagram showing Mr. Morrison frolicking in Waikiki. Back home, wildlife rescuers uploaded videos of screaming koalas with third-degree burns.

Mr. Morrison acknowledged the “horrendous” toll and conceded that climate change had played a role in the fires, but otherwise deflected responsibility. He cut short his holiday but quipped, “I don’t hold a hose, mate.”

When he visited the scorched town of Cobargo, he was heckled by angry residents.

Today, protesters ambush Mr. Morrison on the campaign trail wearing Hawaiian shirts, the avatar for all of his political failures: a scandal-prone cabinet; the slow pace of the vaccine rollout during the pandemic; a widening gap between inflation and wage growth.Climate change isn’t necessarily the top concern of voters. But it has become a constant source of anxiety as the disasters continue. This year, eastern Australia experienced record rainfall which submerged towns and killed at least 22 people. But hard-hit areas went without adequate relief funds. When government help did not arrive, townships crowd-funded for deliveries by private helicopters. As of last weekend, some towns are underwater for the third time in a year.

Urban voters who once had a home in Mr. Turnbull’s Liberal Party are running angry pro-climate independent campaigns across must-win city seats. Mr. Morrison’s rivals in the center-left Labor Party are playing it safe, voicing qualified support for coal mines while embracing President Biden’s platform of job creation through climate action. Meanwhile, conservative attempts to revive old fears of the net-zero emissions boogeyman are backfiring even in their traditional heartlands.

Yet Mr. Morrison has clung to the old fear-mongering. Australians are learning the hard way, however, that denial offers no protection when floodwaters are rising. In his climate-altered country, Mr. Morrison’s failure to absorb that lesson threatens to sweep him away, too.

Van Badham (@vanbadham) is a columnist for The Guardian Australia and the author of the “QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults.”

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