Features | Environment | Politics | Oceania

Fiddling While Australia Burns

While leaders prevaricate on climate issues, the toll is growing – this time in the form of devastating bushfires.

Joshua Mcdonald
Fiddling While Australia Burns
Credit: Ash Hogan

As of today, bushfires along Australia’s east coast have burnt through more than 1.6 million hectares of land, killing six people and destroying more than 300 homes. Former fire chiefs say the worst is yet to come and that this is only the beginning of what could be the worst bushfire season in Australian history.

As the fires raged and thousands of Australians fled their homes for safer ground, a report released by the Lancet medical journal found that the Australian federal government’s negligence toward climate change has left Australians at significant risk of illness through heat, fire, and extreme weather conditions and elevated suicide rates at higher temperatures.

The report concluded that “Australia remains at significant risk of declines in health due to climate change, and that substantial and sustained national action is urgently required to prevent this.”

The report’s timely release is just the latest exposé into the government’s reluctance to accept a changing climate and yet another warning for Australia’s leaders to ignore.

The Politics of a Burning Country

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On Monday November 11, after more than six weeks of firefighters battling blazes stretching more than 1,000 kilometers along Australia’s eastern seaboard, the state of New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state declared a state of emergency in response to “catastrophic” fire conditions forecast for the following day.

According to the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, a catastrophic fire means that any fires that start are likely to be so fierce that even a well-prepared, well-constructed, and actively defended home may not survive. Put simply, the NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, said the rating means “it’s where people die.”

And already, government officials were attempting to lay blame elsewhere.

Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party Michael McCormack fired the first shot, telling ABC Radio National that it galled him when “inner-city lefties raised climate change in relation to bushfires.”

“We’ve had fires in Australia since time began, and what people need now is a little bit of sympathy, understanding, and real assistance – they need help, they need shelter,” he said.

“They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened, and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes, when in fact they’re going out in many cases saving other peoples’ homes and leaving their own homes at risk.”

Former Leader of the National Party and current MP Barnaby Joyce went as far as peddling a conspiracy theory that the Greens party is responsible for the bushfires, saying “Greens policy” gets in the way “of many of the practicalities of fighting a fire and managing it.”

To be clear, the Greens could not have introduced these policies, as they have never been in power.

Joyce then went on to suggest that victims of the fires were likely Greens voters, sparking outrage from the victims’ friends and family.

Firing back, the Greens’ co-deputy leader, Adam Bandt, accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of putting Australian lives at risk with inadequate climate policy.

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“Michael McCormack and Scott Morrison bear some responsibility for what is happening at the moment because they have done everything in their power to make these kinds of catastrophic bushfires more likely,” he said.

Bandt’s Senate colleague Jordan Steele-John said the major parties were “no better than arsonists.”

Steele-John’s comments triggered a backlash from both the Coalition and Labor, but Bandt defended Steele-John’s comments, saying, “I think you should listen to the emotion in Jordon Steele-John’s voice as he is talking there. I think he is the youngest member of Parliament – he is part of a generation that is terrified and aghast with what they are seeing with the climate crisis. What we are seeing has happened with one degree of warming and they know we are on track for three.”

Earlier this month, in a speech to the Queensland Resources Council, Morrison said a threat to the future of mining was coming from a “new breed of radical activism” that was “apocalyptic in tone” and he pledged to outlaw boycott campaigns that he argued could hurt the country’s mining industry.

One of Morrison’s more unconventional stunts was bringing a piece of coal into Parliament in 2017 in an attempt to taunt his opposition.

“This is coal,” he said. “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you.”

Perhaps now, in the wake of what experts predict could be the worst bushfire season in the history of this country — and that experts believe is linked to climate change, which is a reaction to activities such as mining for coal — Morrison’s words may be coming back to haunt him.

As Tuesday dawned, firefighters were already exhausted. So too, were the thousands of Australians who had already fled their homes and the thousands more who were in fear of the fire turning in their direction.

As the day got warmer, the fires grew more aggressive. Some residents were lucky to have enough time to evacuate. Others would receive an “emergency warning” from the NSW Rural Fire Service saying, “You are at risk. It is too late to leave. Seek shelter as the fire approaches.”

Residents in Noosa were cut off from escaping by road and had to be evacuated by boat. Some of Australia’s largest cities, such as Sydney, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast were even considered at risk.

When Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of New South Wales, announced that a state of emergency had been declared, reporters questioned her on the links between climate change and the bushfires, to which she responded, “Honestly not today.”

While catastrophic conditions ripped through her state on Tuesday, her government appeared to rub salt in the wound by pushing through legislation that will prevent future rejections of coal mine developments on the basis of their contributions to global emissions.

Furthermore, as fires neared the NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes’ electorate of Pittwater, in Sydney’s north, he was criticized for introducing a bill last month that would stop planning authorities from considering the climate pollution of exported Australian coal when determining new mining projects.

Carol Sparks, the mayor of Glen Innes, where two people died in the recent fires, called on Deputy Prime Minister McCormack to refer to scientific evidence before commenting further.

“I think that Michael McCormack needs to read the science, and that is what I am going by, is the science,” she said. “It is not a political thing – it is a scientific fact that we are going through climate change…To deny climate change is to me very ill informed and an uneducated way of looking at things.”

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Responding to comments made by the deputy prime minister, Mid Coast Mayor Claire Pontin dismissed the notion that now is not the time to talk about climate change, saying, “It’s always the time to be talking about it. Every level of government needs to recognize that there is a big issue and it’s almost too late to act,” she said.

And yet the government’s attempt to separate climate change from the bushfires was even put in writing. In an email leaked to the media, the NSW state government directed public servants on Wednesday not to discuss the link between climate change and bushfires at a conference on adaption to climate change.

In another public blunder, Shadow Minister for Resources Joel Fitzgibbon sent parliamentarians an invitation to an event hosted by the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association.

“As Queensland and NSW burns, both the Liberals and Labor thought it was a good time to invite parliamentarians to Christmas drinks hosted by the fossil fuel industry, whose product is fuelling climate change and donations are blocking climate action,” said co-deputy leader of the Greens, Larissa Waters.

By Tuesday’s end, more than 300 fires were raging. Reports of missing persons, entire towns destroyed, exhausted firefighters, despairing residents, native Australian animals feared dead, and disputing politicians filled the news cycle. Nineteen fires had reached the “emergency” warning level.

Government Fails to Heed Warnings From Experts.

While politicians continued to toss the blame around, bushfire experts, climate scientists, and emergency response chiefs began coordinating their voices, establishing that worsening bushfires are a direct result of climate change and that the government was ignoring the facts and had failed to heed their warnings.

The warnings go back four decades. In 1987, Dr. Tom Beer, who was then working as a CSIRO meteorologist, was tasked with finding out what the greenhouse effect might mean for the future of bushfires.

Beer’s findings, published a year later with the title “Australian bushfire danger under climatic regimes,” became the first study in the world to ask what climate change was going to mean for wildfires.

“It seems obvious, but actually we found the correlation was not temperature and fires, but relative humidity and fires. Temperature goes up, it gets drier, and then the fires go up,” Beer told the Guardian.

More recently, a coalition of 23 fire and emergency service leaders from every Australian state and territory said they have been warning the prime minister of the expected “catastrophic extreme weather events” since April this year.

Greg Mullins, a former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, said Morrison responded to their first letter by suggesting a meeting with the minister for energy and emissions reduction, Angus Taylor.

Taylor, however, did not reach out to Mullins until the issue was brought forward by the media. Even then, contact between Mullins and Taylor left Mullins with the impression that the minister appeared at best to be disinterested in what the group might have to say.

While Mullins was trying to garner the support of the country’s leaders, the government cut $12.9 million in expenses from Fire & Rescue NSW, while the Office of NSW Rural Fire Services – a service run by volunteers – lost $26.7 million in expenses.

Official parliamentary figures show that when the Coalition government took control in 2011 it inherited 1,349 firefighters. Eight years later, however, there are 1,044 left.

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The Public Service Association is also blaming the NSW government for cuts. The PSA’s acting general secretary, Troy Wright, says there has been a 35 percent decline in the number of fire-trained rangers at the National Parks and Wildlife Service. According to figures, when the Coalition government came to power, there were 289 rangers, of which there were 28 senior rangers. Now there are just 193 rangers and no senior rangers.

On Wednesday, Labor MP Kate Washington tweeted that she had “just asked Gladys Berejiklian in Parliament, if she’d repeat the claim that she made to the ABC this morning, that she had not cut national park rangers – who manage hazard reduction. She refused to.”

Amid the chaos, Mullins opined an article in the Sydney Morning Herald: “In the past I have heard some federal politicians dodge the question of the influence of climate change on extreme weather and fires by saying, ‘It’s terrible that this matter is being raised while the fires are still burning.’ But if not now, then when?”

“Warmer, drier conditions with higher fire danger are preventing agencies from conducting as much hazard reduction burning – it is often either too wet, or too dry and windy to burn safely. Blaming ‘greenies’ for stopping these important measures is a familiar, populist, but basically untrue claim,” he wrote.

Mullins and the rest of the coalition gathered in Sydney on Thursday to call for a climate emergency to be declared, insisting that harder-to-control fires have broken out earlier than normal because of global warming.

Firefighters are now battling a fire front of some 6,000 km, and with months of fighting ahead of them, fire chiefs are concerned about the fatigue and stress in volunteer firefighters.

In the south of Australia, the Victorian state government is planning for a “very extreme” heatwave, worse than the Black Saturday weather event of 2009, which killed 173 people. The expected heatwave has the potential to kill hundreds of people, cripple public transport and the electricity supply, and strip $1 billion from the state’s economy according to the Department of Environment, Land, Water, And Planning.

The state of South Australia is today bracing for its own catastrophic fires. More than 100 schools have been forced to close as the Bureau of Meteorology expects temperatures of over 40 degrees along with winds of up to 60 kilometers an hour. Seven regions in the state have been given catastrophic fire danger ratings.

Mullins said this is just the beginning and that there is nothing “unpredicted” about this.

“Firefighters are on the front line of climate change. They have already been battling abnormal bushfires throughout winter and there is a weary realization that this is simply the new norm,” he said.