Australia’s ongoing bushfire woes are part of a long-term trend that is here to stay. The climate crisis is just starting, and Australia is walking into disaster amidst a political reaction that has been woefully passive.
The world, including Australia, would do best to heed this warning — but it doesn’t look like that’s happening. In many ways, Australia is pioneering a large-scale climate disaster.
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Bushfires are not uncommon in Australia, but the 2020 fires have been devastating. Over 18.6 million hectares were burned down, billions of animals were killed or affected, 6,000 buildings were destroyed, it’s a catastrophe by all possible metrics.
Both climate and fire experts agreed that climate change played a role in the intensity of the fires in Australia, especially by making plants drier and more prone to burning. It’s not that climate change was the only factor, that’s not the takeaway here — but climate change can exacerbate the extent and severity of the fires, and experts believe this is exactly what happened in Australia. Logging has also been identified as a factor that exacerbated the damage.
Some fire experts in Australia have come out to say that they’ve tried to warn the government of an impending crisis, but their warnings were ignored, largely because of climate politics.
The current Australian administration, and current prime minister Scott Morrison in particular, has come to power on a platform militating for coal power. Morrison portrayed climate change as the exclusive concern of educated city-dwellers, claiming that any climate policy will be a threat to people’s cars and trucks. A few years ago, he even brought a lump of coal to the floor of Parliament, expressing his support for coal energy.
It should be no surprise then that much of Australia’s emissions comes from burning coal, the dirtiest type of energy.
So when, throughout the crisis, people (as well as the scientific community) pointed the finger at climate change, they were faced with indifference and disinformation.
Attacks on science, inaction on climate
Attacks on science and scientists by politicians are nothing new. Politicians, especially those connected to the fossil fuel industry, have pushed climate change denial on the agenda, and have made climate inaction the default — even when confronted with such disasters.
When confronted about the connection between climate change and the bushfires, most politicians chose to simply duck their heads.
“Not today. Not today,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told the media when Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about the relationship.
This has drawn widespread criticism from the population, with many likening this reaction to the reaction of US politicians in the aftermath of gun violence: they simply refuse to talk about it.
Even worse, myths and disinformation were thriving online, and some politicians jumped at them, spreading and propagating falsehoods even more. For instance, one such falsehood claimed that environmentalists have opposed hazard reduction efforts by opposing the burning of dry fuel loads — an old, disproven conspiracy theory that gained a new life as a meme on social media.
The media’s reaction has also been largely disappointing. Research has shown that “climate scepticism gets substantial favourable exposure in mainstream Australian media” and Australia is one of the leaders of climate change denial — and it showed over the fire crisis. Many media outlets simply refused to pay attention to the story, preferring to downplay the story or ignore it completely.
All this is happening despite Australian scientists raising the alarm on climate heating. For instance, the annual climate statement for 2019 stated that:
- 2019 was Australia’s warmest year on record, with the annual national mean temperature 1.52 °C above average
- Both mean annual maximum and minimum temperatures above average for all States and the Northern Territory
- Annual national mean maximum temperature warmest on record (2.09 °C above average)
It’s not like 2019 was an exception either — the long-term trend clearly shows rising temperatures.
Environment in ‘unsustainable state of decline’
It’s not just forest fires that are being accentuated by climate change — the entire environment is reeling. A recent governmental report notes that:
“Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.”
According to the report authors, the legislation that should support environmental reform is also ill-suited for the task. The same report notes that Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is ineffective and does not enable the protection of environmental matters.
“Under these arrangements it is not surprising that the list of threatened species and communities has increased over time and there have been very few species that have recovered to the point that they can be removed from the list,” the report notes.
Think global, act local
Something that Australian politicians love to say is that Australia is playing its part and there’s nothing that the country can do to address a global problem like climate change. That’s exactly the type of half-truth holding climate action back.
Per capita, Australia is one of the highest emitters in the world, with emissions roughly similar to those in the US, and far greater than those of European countries or neighboring New Zealand.
Internationally, Australia has also stubbornly lobbied for coal power and even opposed renewable energy on occasion. Sure, Australia only accounts for 1.1% of the world’s emissions, but that’s still disproportionate as Australia only hosts 0.33% of the world’s population. Furthermore, using this line of reasoning, we can say that no country is responsible for all the climate change, so everyone can argue that they don’t bear the full responsibility. That will get us nowhere. If we don’t all start playing our part, we will all suffer the consequences; it’s a true tragedy of the commons.
Lessons for the world
Due to its geography and rather unique environmental situation, Australia is a canary-in-the-coal-mine of sorts. Rather ironic, because coal is exactly the problem here (along with the rest of fossil fuels).
The bushfire crisis has forced Australia to confront the effects of the climate change head-on — and it wasn’t pretty. The crisis has been building for years, the experts warned about the threats, and yet political actors have fallen into denial and disinformation. When faced with overwhelming evidence, they issued a half-hearted acknowledgment and dodged responsibility.
Sounds familiar? If it does, that’s because Australia is far from the only place where this is happening. When societies start walking on this path, disasters will follow; the projections and the scientific expertise all point in the same direction. It may not be bushfires, it may not be this year or the next, but the inertia of climate change will come and it will be dreadfully hard to stop. Climate change isn’t a bike or a sports car you can just push the breaks and stop, it’s a huge truck and you need to step on the breaks well in advance.
As a developed and affluent country, and one that’s in such a precarious environmental situation, one would perhaps expect climate leadership from Australia. Instead, we’re seeing the opposite, and the consequences are starting to show. Passivity, denial, and disinformation will just not do. People both in and outside of Australia would be wise to learn this lesson and take action before it’s too late.