SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Australians still have a tough time talking about climate change despite suffering record-breaking temperatures and an unprecedented fire season. Global warming is generally accepted as fact in a country that just experienced its hottest and driest year on record in 2019, but Australia is also the world's largest exporter of coal. Last year in a parliamentary election, one of the biggest issues was what the media termed the climate wars. Australian voters rejected the Labor Party, which was lobbying for the country to move aggressively away from fossil fuels.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Sydney.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Unlike debates on the issue in the U.S., where a lot of people refuse to accept established science, in Australia, the debate is more about the urgency of climate change and how much should be done on it and how quickly. With smoke in the air, the record heat, the ongoing drought, millions and millions of acres of land on fire, there are daily reminders of the reality of the changing planet. But that doesn't mean people agree on what should be done about it.
MARK HOWDEN: If you go back a couple of decades, there was largely bipartisan support in terms of climate action.
BEAUBIEN: That's Mark Howden. He's the director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University in Canberra.
HOWDEN: But for a few different reasons, we've gone into a period of extreme polarization about climate change, quite extraordinary degree of polarization about climate change.
BEAUBIEN: Three years ago, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, back when he was the treasurer, famously brought a softball-sized lump of coal into Parliament and thrust it defiantly in the air.
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PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON: Mr. Speaker, this is coal. Don't be afraid. Don't be scared.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Treasurer knows the rule on props.
MORRISON: It's coal. It was dug up by men and women who work and live in the electorates of those who sit opposite.
BEAUBIEN: Morrison said coal exports is what has made the Australian economy globally competitive. He accused legislators who were pushing for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of stifling Australian jobs, and he also suggested that his opponents suffer from a mental disorder.
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MORRISON: Mr. Speaker, those opposite have an ideological, pathological fear of coal. There's no word for coalaphobia (ph) officially, Mr. Speaker, but that's the malady that afflicts those opposite.
BEAUBIEN: Howden, from the Australian National University, says the polarization around climate change has kept the country from moving forward - not just to try to reduce emissions, but to put in place additional coping measures, like beefing up firefighting budgets and bringing in more water-bombing airplanes.
HOWDEN: What's really extraordinary in Australia is even though the politics are actually very toxic and problematic, most Australians want action on climate change.
BEAUBIEN: A poll last year from the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney, found that Australians listed climate change as the biggest threat facing the country in the coming decade, and 90% of them said they wanted the government to take action on the issue.
The town of Conjola Park on the east coast, south of Sydney, was ravaged by the wildfires that flared over New Years. More than 80 houses were destroyed, and two people died in the town. The community hall has been turned into a relief supply station. Tables are piled with clothes, toiletries, food, bottles of water. There's still no power, so a generator is running out front to keep ice and milk cold in a refrigerated shipping container.
Deputy Mayor Patricia White is visiting the community center for the first time since the fire.
PATRICIA WHITE: I live about 30 K's up the road. I got stuck in the fires as well, but I've been itching to come down to this community because they are like family to me.
BEAUBIEN: White's an independent who considers herself right of center. She's frustrated by how difficult it is to get people across the political spectrum to compromise during debates about climate change on the city council.
WHITE: They don't want to accept somebody else's opinion.
BEAUBIEN: She says the city council had a huge fight over whether to convert all municipal buildings to run entirely off solar.
WHITE: So do I say to a ratepayer, I'm not collecting the rubbish for, you know, - I'm only going to collect the rubbish every three weeks because I need to save money because I want to put a solar roof on the toilet. You know, you've got a balancing act, and how do you do it?
BEAUBIEN: She says everyone needs to back off, in her words, an inch or two because nearly everyone in Australia accepts that climate change is a real problem. But it's an abstract and, to some, terrifying problem. And agreeing on exactly what should be done about it right now is proving almost impossible.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, New South Wales, Australia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.