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Bushfire crisis forces a reckoning on Australia’s ‘regressive’ climate politics

The sky glows red as bushfires continue to rage in Mallacoota, Victoria, Australia, December 31, 2019, in this photo obtained from social media.
The sky glows red as bushfires continue to rage in Mallacoota, Victoria, Australia, December 31, 2019, in this photo obtained from social media. © Jonty Smith, Reuters

Australia’s government, long allied with the coal industry, has been labelled “an increasingly regressive force” on climate change by watchdogs. Will the record bushfires ravaging the country since autumn mark a turning point?

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Thousands of families seeking refuge on beaches. Over a billion animals killed. Clouds of smoke choking the country’s biggest cities. These apocalyptic scenes have captured the scale and severity of the wildfires raging in Australia since September.

“We’re in the middle of a war situation,” David Bowman, director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania, told TIME magazine this week.

“I've seen bushfires before, but this was like an atomic bomb,” echoed Andrew Constance, Transport Minister of New South Wales, in the Sydney Morning Herald. His comments came as authorities urged nearly a quarter-million people to evacuate their homes in neighbouring Victoria state, ahead of a renewed heatwave that caused two major fires to merge into a “megablaze” on Friday.

Australians are used to fire season, but the current environmental catastrophe is unprecedented, said David Camroux, an Australian-born senior research fellow at the Centre for International Research (CERI) at Paris’s Sciences Po.

“Contrary to the usual patterns, the fires have not been contained within a single state but stretch from New South Wales to Victoria and Queensland,” he told FRANCE 24. “They could last for a long time, because the rains are not expected until March or April.”

Even those out of reach of the flames are not immune to the dangers of the fires, with millions facing hazardous air pollution in and around Australia’s major cities. In Canberra, the capital, levels of PM 2.5 particulate matter peaked on New Year’s Day at more than 200 times the World Health Organization’s safe recommended value.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Camroux.

‘Sack ScoMo’

For many Australians, the government’s response to the fires has exemplified its wider failures in responding to the threats posed by climate change.

“Prime Minister Scott Morrison has multiplied errors in managing this national crisis,” said Camroux.

As early as last April, chief firefighters had warned of the possibility of crisis-level bushfires, but didn’t receive any response from the government. For weeks, as damage from the fires spread, the conservative prime minister and longtime coal industry advocate refused to acknowledge any connection between climate change and the fires, before finally doing so in mid-December.

“All this has sparked Australians’ outrage,” said Camroux. Catalysing their anger is the Hawaii beach vacation Morrison took with his family in mid-December, even as two firefighters were killed battling the flames.

Morrison cut the trip short and apologised, before scheduling a visit to the affected areas in early January. But he hasn’t avoided further blunders. During a visit this week to Kangaroo Island, a wildlife hub and popular tourist destination off Australia’s south coast, Morrison erroneously told reporters: “Thankfully, we’ve had no loss of life.” He was quickly corrected, prompting an awkward exchange.

Still, Morrison’s message was upbeat.

“Australia is open, Australia is still a wonderful place to come and bring your family and enjoy your holidays,” he said after meeting local tourism operators and farmers.

“Even here on Kangaroo Island, where a third of the island has obviously been decimated, two-thirds of it is open and ready for business,” he said. “It’s important to keep the local economies vibrant at these times.”

Over the last week, Morrison has called up 3,000 military reservists to help fight the fires and pledged a record A$2 billion (€1.2 billion) in recovery funds.

For Camroux and many Australian residents, the measures are “too little, too late” and illustrate Morrison’s “lack of leadership”. At least one environmental group has gone further, characterising the government’s response to the fires as “criminal negligence” in a call to action published on Wednesday.

The group, Uni Students for Climate Justice, is among the organisers of the ‘Sack ScoMo’ protests that drew thousands into the streets Friday across at least ten Australian cities, demanding the prime minister’s resignation and urgent action on climate change.

One of the world’s biggest polluters per capita

Morrison’s government is hardly the first in Australia to prioritise fossil fuel revenue over climate action.

“Since 1996 successive conservative Australian governments have successfully fought to subvert international agreements on climate change in defence of the country’s fossil fuel industries,” wrote Booker Prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan last week in a New York Times opinion article entitled “Australia Is Committing Climate Suicide”.

Ketan Joshi, an Australian energy and climate science writer, argued on the Guardian news site that mainstream Australian media has been complicit in “pioneering the denial of climate disaster”.

“Rightwing media outlets in Australia have responded to the current bushfires by either refusing to give the story its due prominence or by spreading falsehoods,” Joshi wrote. Moreover, he cited a study by university researchers affiliated with the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism that found that “climate scepticism gets substantial favourable exposure in mainstream Australian media”.

This tendency towards climate scepticism goes hand in hand with the country’s heavy economic dependence on fossil fuels – and, in turn, its position as one of the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases. With just 25 million residents, or 0.3 percent of the world’s population, it is responsible for 1.2 percent of global CO2 emissions. According to the Global Carbon Project, this makes Australia the world’s eleventh-highest CO2 emitter per capita as of 2018, just ahead of the United States.

The 2020 Climate Change Performance Index, created by the rights observatory Germanwatch, ranks Australia 56th out of 61 countries evaluated. The index cites the Morrison government’s record as “an increasingly regressive force” in international climate negotiations, its approval of a major new coal mine and its withdrawal from the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund.

Surge in public concern

Australians’ concern about climate change is rapidly growing, however, as the die-out of half of the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest coral reef system – has drawn stark attention to another one of the devastating consequences of climate change.

>> Focus: Australia's Great Barrier Reef disappearing due to climate change

In May 2019, polling from the Sydney-based Lowy Institute found that 64 percent of Australians considered climate change a “critical threat”, making it the top-ranked threat ahead of cyberattacks from other countries (62 percent), international terrorism (61 percent) and North Korea’s nuclear programme (60 percent).

It was the first time climate change ranked highest since the institute began polling on the question in 2006. The shift in public opinion appears to be driven by Australia’s youth: more than three-quarters of those aged 18-44 agreed that global warming is a “serious and pressing problem”, compared to just under half of those over the age of 45.

This dynamic was also reflected in the massive Australian turnout for the most recent youth-led climate strikes in September. Organisers estimated that more than 300,000 protesters participated across the country, which would make the demonstrations the largest in Australia since those against the Iraq War in 2003.

“As in many Western countries, it’s become a generational issue,” said Camroux. “We can expect the movement to continue gaining ground.”

‘There will be a before and after the fires’

So far, growing public awareness of climate change has not translated to the ballot box. Last May, the conservative coalition headed by Morrison was narrowly re-elected. The result contrasted sharply with opinion polls, which had predicted a Labor victory. The Labor party had campaigned on a promise to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, by rapidly shifting to renewable energy and setting an emissions cap for big polluters.

Still, said Camroux, “there will be a before and after the fires”. To date, many Australians have dismissed environmentalists as urban elites, seeing them as “disconnected from the lives of ‘real Australians’ in the countryside”, he said.

There are signs, however, of a growing thaw between these two camps. One illustration is the coalition of farmers and environmentalists who, since 2017, have been fighting a major new coal mine planned by India’s Adani Group.

“Farmers and urban environmentalists protested to denounce the possible consequences of the mine’s opening on the Great Barrier Reef,” Camroux said. “The national crisis caused by the fires will rally them even closer together.”

This article was adapted by Colin Kinniburgh from the original in French

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