(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s personal ratings have tumbled over his handling of Australia’s wildfire crisis, adding to pressure on his government to shift course on its climate change policies.
Morrison has suffered an 8-point drop in his approval ratings since December, according to a Newspoll published by the Australian newspaper Monday, and an 11-point increase in those dissatisfied with his performance. The Liberal-National coalition government also lost its 4-point lead over the main opposition Labor party and now trails 49% to 51%.
The wildfire crisis has claimed at least 28 lives, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and charred an area twice the size of Switzerland, spurring criticism at home and abroad of the government’s pro-coal policies and refusal to take further steps to curb emissions.
The survey is a blow to Morrison, who only eight months ago was lauded as a conservative hero for winning a come-from-behind election victory. He was lambasted for taking an unannounced pre-Christmas vacation to Hawaii amid the crisis and was heckled by locals when, on his return, he toured a bushfire-ravaged community. He was also filmed turning his back on a pregnant woman as she appealed for more resources.
The backlash against Morrison -- who supports expanding the nation’s massive coal-export industry -- has been savage. The hashtag #ScottyfromMarketing has trended for weeks, a reference to his stint as the former head of Tourism Australia and his inclination to put a positive spin on the crisis.
Thousands of protesters rallied from Melbourne to London on Friday demanding Australia’s government stop supporting fossil fuel industries. Many chanted slogans such as “We Want Climate Justice” and “Get Rid of Scomo” -- the nickname for Morrison.
In an interview with Australia’s national broadcaster Sunday, Morrison acknowledged missteps, including his vacation to Hawaii. “There are things that I could have handled on the ground much better,” he told the ABC Insiders show. “Prime ministers are flesh and blood too.”
He acknowledged that climate change was a contributing factor to the crisis -- a shift in language after members of his government downplayed links to global warming. “Climate change, it is the government’s policy, has obviously impacted on the longer, hotter, dryer, summer seasons,” Morrison said. “That is not contested.”
But he held the ground on climate policy, stressing the importance of safeguarding jobs and economic growth, and indicated he wouldn’t significantly shift from the government’s existing Paris accord commitment to cut carbon emissions by at least 26% from 2005 levels by 2030.
“In the years ahead we are going to continue to evolve our policy in this area, to reduce emissions even further, and we’re going to do it without a carbon tax, without putting up electricity prices,” Morrison said. “Without shutting down traditional industries upon which regional Australians depend for their very livelihood.”
The bushfire crisis has intensified the emotive debate about the impact of global warming on the world’s driest-inhabited continent and polls show a majority of Australians want the government to take greater action to combat climate change.
Australia needs a “coherent climate change policy,” Amanda McKenzie, chief executive officer of lobby group The Climate Council, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV Monday. “Nothing they have done so far has been about reducing fossil fuels. This will be the crucial test of whether they are serious about climate policy.”
Soon after winning power in 2013, the conservatives scrapped the previous Labor government’s policy of putting a price on carbon emissions.
Morrison, who once brandished a lump of coal in Parliament in a show of support for the the fuel, favors expanding the industry. He is backing a new coal mine being developed by India’s Adani Power Ltd. that has been a flash-point in protests by environmentalists, and is even considering underwriting coal-fired power projects. The government’s energy policy prioritizes lowering voters’ electricity costs rather than reducing emissions.
The government argues that Australia is responsible for only 1.3% of global emissions and is on track to meet its Paris commitments.
Critics counter by saying that Australia’s contribution to carbon emissions should include the massive amounts loosed into the atmosphere from the coal it exports to India, China, and other countries. The Australia Institute, a public policy think tank, says the nation is the world’s third-biggest exporter of potential carbon dioxide emissions locked in fossil fuels, behind oil giants Russia and Saudi Arabia.
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