Howard’s End

In the end, it wasn’t even close. After 11 years in charge, Australian Prime Minister John Howard couldn’t hold onto his own seat in Saturday’s general election, let alone prevent a parliamentary rout of his ruling conservative coalition by Kevin Rudd’s resurgent Labor party.

Australians’ overwhelming rejection of Howard’s government carries an important message for the US in terms of the 2008 elections: This was arguably the first national election to be fought and won on the issue of climate change. Along with his buddy George Bush, “Little Johnny” was the only leader of a major developed nation to refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol; he has long denied the reality of climate change, and began half-hearted policy reforms only after it became politically impossible to continue ducking the issue.

With Queensland - Australia’s own Sunshine State - mired in a once-in-a-millennium drought, Howard’s environmental indifference weighed heavily against him at the polling booth. Australians have felt the consequences of climate change firsthand, which has not only brought water shortages and hose-pipe bans, but also drastic reductions in agricultural productivity that threaten to destabilize the national economy.

It’s easy to see why voters preferred Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat who’s promised to spend $5 billion on green initiatives. He says he’ll work to ensure that Australia gets a fifth of her energy from renewable sources by 2020, and has promised to make the ratification of the Kyoto accord a top priority. While that’s a largely symbolic gesture, it’s one that further isolates Washington’s climate-change skeptics and - as Indonesia’s environment minister Rachmat Witoelar has noted - gives the green camp a “heaven sent” boost ahead of next month’s climate talks in Bali.

We shouldn’t get carried away here: After all, foreign elections aren’t referendums on American policy decisions. It’s important to remember that Howard’s campaign was weighed down by other political baggage - the Iraq war, interest rate hikes, allegations of sleaze - besides just climate change.

But with Louisiana still struggling to undo the damage from Hurricane Katrina, wildfires ravaging California, and water shortages becoming increasingly severe across the southern states, it’s clear that US voters, too, have seen for themselves the price of inaction on global warming. As Kevin Rudd takes the reins in Canberra, America’s presidential hopefuls should take note: In today’s political climate, politicians ignore the environment at their peril.

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