It is a word normally used only in homeware catalogues, alongside “taupe”, “coral” and “fuchsia”, to make a bluish-green towel or sweater sound sophisticated and desirable. But teal has suddenly become the most important term in Australian politics. It denotes independent candidates who might pass as members of the right-of-centre Liberal party, whose colour is blue, were they not several shades greener. In the national election on May 21st six such “teal” candidates unseated leading Liberals in the party’s wealthy urban heartland, helping to usher it out of power and dramatically expanding the boundaries of what is politically possible overnight. For Americans who long for their politicians to do more about climate change, in particular, it is an encouraging example.
The election is a watershed for Australia. Not only has it led to the first change of government in nine years; it also marks the first time that an Australian prime minister has come unstuck for doing too little, rather than too much, to curb climate change. Previous pms who had tried to institute carbon taxes or emissions-trading schemes had been painted as loony tree-huggers and ejected from office either by the electorate or by their own mps. The received wisdom in Australian politics had been that voters were not as worried about climate change as they claimed to be when pollsters asked them—or at least not worried enough to pay for any curbs on emissions. Both the Liberals and their main rivals, Labor, had promised to make Australia carbon neutral by 2050, but both parties tried to talk as little as possible about how they might bring that about. Yet this circumspection won them both fewer first-choice votes than at the previous election, while the teals and the Greens saw their share of the vote jump.
Australians, in short, seem to have turned on a dime (or at least a five-cent piece), transmogrifying from closet climate sceptics into nascent environmental activists. In part, that can be attributed to the terrible fires and floods Australia has suffered since the previous election, which were widely believed to have been exacerbated by climate change. But in fact the shift was not as abrupt as it appears. There had long been a green wing within the Liberal party. It took this faction’s defeat in internal battles to spawn the teals, and thus to prove that concern about the climate need not be an exclusively left-wing cause.
As a result, Australia is now likely not only to set a more stringent target for emissions cuts by 2030, but also to adopt some policies to give the new target teeth. That means the role of chief climate laggard among big, wealthy economies is likely to revert to America, Australia’s perennial rival for the title. But it also holds out the tantalising prospect that American politics might also suddenly shift.
The politics of the two countries are not the same. Australia has more of a tradition of third parties and independents, and an electoral system that assists them. Most of America’s well-to-do but environmentally minded voters defected from the Republican Party to the Democrats some time ago. What is more, America has already had its “Katrina moment”, in 2005, and largely ignored it.
But climate scepticism is not an article of faith within the Republican Party in quite the same way that gun rights and abortion restrictions are. Texas and other red states in the middle of America dominate the country’s wind industry. Lots of businesses see curbs on emissions as inevitable, and would simply like greater clarity about what form, exactly, they will take. Many Republican politicians have embraced subsidies for renewables, but still balk at the idea of pricing carbon.
A seismic shift in America along the lines of Australia’s would come a lot quicker, however, and lead to much better policies, if there were more green-minded activists on the right, helping to advocate and shape the change. Big cuts in emissions will be costly, and need to be made as efficiently and therefore cheaply as possible. Voters would be better served if given a choice about how best to make those cuts, rather than whether to make them at all. That is the teal lesson of Australia’s election. ■