Outback Farmers Lead Charge as Climate Heats Up Aussie Election

A nationwide survey by the Australia Institute found that more than half of respondents believe the country is "facing a climate emergency", and support more policy action.

Australian farmer Denis Couture stands under solar panels on his farm outside of Bowen, part of his effort to move away from using environmentally damaging fossil fuels -- like coal from a nearby plant -- on his land. Photo: AFP

Mackay (Australia): As Australians head to the polls this week after the country's hottest-ever summer, outback farmers -- walloped by epic fires, floods and heatwaves -- are leading the fight against climate change, making it one of the election's key issues.

With one of the world's worst pollution records per capita -- and a prime minister who paraded a lump of coal through parliament -- no one would mistake Australia for a progressive eco-haven.

But after a prolonged drought, raging bushfires and "once-in-a-century" floods, many Australians fear the country is ill-equipped to tackle climate change.

The northeast battleground state of Queensland bore the brunt of the summer's extreme climate conditions, and is ground zero for changing outback attitudes.

Insurers AIG estimated that between 2007 and 2016 natural disasters cost the state roughly Aus$11 billion a year (US$12 billion) with the bill only increasing since then.


Slash and burn

When Simon Gedda's family took over a farm about two hours' drive from Australia's "beef capital" Rockhampton 50 years ago, they did what any other Queenslander cattle grazier household would do.

They stripped out the trees, cut back the grass and sprayed chemicals to make farming easier.

But rising costs and concern about climate change prompted Gedda to move away from high-impact methods.

And when a category-four cyclone struck his property in 2017, he joined the 5,000-member advocacy group Farmers for Climate Action.

"The headwaters of our creek received 40 inches (100 centimetres) of rain in 14 hours," he said. "It wasn't any old flood. It was something that was totally unbelievable.

"This is exactly what the scientists have been telling us."

In the face of government inaction, Gedda and other farmers are pushing forward with their own climate initiatives -- in a bid to protect their livelihoods.

Denis Couture, whose tomato and chilli-growing operation in Bowen is a short drive from Australia's most northernly deepwater coal port terminal, is shunning fossil fuels and using solar panels and batteries.

"Renewable energy in Australia is abundant. There's wind everywhere, there's solar everywhere," Couture told AFP, pointing to the sky above the so-called Sunshine State.

Craig Illingworth, who lives close to bushfire-hit rainforests in central Queensland, said last year's blaze was a wake-up call.

"I've never seen fires or heard of that intensity, that many fires that ran for the time frame that they did and were so uncontrollable."

Poor agricultural practices and deforestation have degraded the soil and are major climate change drivers.

But Queensland farmer Simon Mattsson believes landowners can help -- by removing carbon from the atmosphere and putting it into the soil.

"If Australia is to have any hope of maintaining good agriculture production, we need healthy soil," Mattsson, who is diversifying his crops to improve soil quality, told AFP.


Changing attitudes

Queenslanders are not alone in expressing concern about climate change -- or frustration about Canberra's apparent reluctance to tackle the issue.

A nationwide survey by the Australia Institute found that more than half of respondents believe the country is "facing a climate emergency", and support more policy action.

The push for change is so strong analysts believe climate policies by Australia's two major parties -- the ruling right-wing Liberal-National coalition and left-leaning Labor -- might determine this and future elections.

But Queensland is also a centre for coal mining. More than 20,000 people are employed in the sector in the central region of the state alone.

Even politicians who believe in climate change are reluctant to put those jobs at risk, or risk donations from the mining industry and its unions.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said Australia will meet its international obligations under the Paris climate agreement, but not "in a way that puts our kids' economic future at risk".

His party's hard-right ousted his predecessor Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in August amid plans to embed carbon emission targets in law.

Labor meanwhile has committed to 50 percent energy coming from renewables by 2030. But, backed by trade unions, the party is also cautious about plans to fully phase out mining.

How both parties fare in Saturday's vote could determine their environmental policies, and reshape how they campaign in rural areas in future elections.

"I think that climate change is right smack in the middle of the electoral agenda from now on," Griffith University's Queensland political analyst Paul Williams told AFP.

"Any major party that ignores it will not be taken seriously."