Videos of singed kangaroos and parched koalas prompted an outpouring of grief on social media. Where the fires have been quelled, a blackened desolation remains, with thousands of homes lost and communities uprooted. Survivors and eyewitnesses spoke of an apocalyptic orange sky and fierce winds that meant the roaring of the blaze was often heard before it was seen. So extreme were the conditions — the country experienced a record heat wave, on top of three years of devastating drought — that banks of clouds created by the flames have generated their own fire-driven thunderstorms.
The international community has taken note. A report published last month by a group of think tanks that ranked 57 countries on their national climate action policies placed Australia sixth from bottom. A separate study in November ranked Australia as third-worst among the Group of 20 nations. Though Australia just produces a bit more than 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, it’s the world’s biggest exporter of coal, whose use is a major factor in the warming of the planet. The bush fires alone have emitted some 350 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since last September.
In the midst of the crisis, Morrison has offered mostly a tepid brand of climate denialism, pointing to a long history of seasonal fires. “They are natural disasters,” he told reporters last week. “They wreak this sort of havoc when they affect our country, and they have for a very long time.”
In comments to Reuters on Tuesday, Angus Taylor, Morrison’s emissions reduction minister, waved away criticism over policy and said the “bush fires are a time when communities must unite, not divide.” Allies elsewhere cautioned against policies that could negatively impact Australian business. Right-wing media have also pointed to reports of dozens of arsonists contributing to the blaze as supposed evidence that the current catastrophe is not entirely linked to climate change.
“Even without human help, Earth can be at times inhospitable,” noted an editorial in The Washington Post. “All the more reason to avoid priming the planet for worse — extreme weather, intense heat waves, more drought, more flooding, rising seas, species die-offs, disease proliferation, and more foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences. Australia, which has profited off fossil fuel extraction and use, has a responsibility to help lead the world.”
But Morrison and his ilk have long resisted meaningful climate action or schemes that would raise the cost of energy. This current round of fires may force a new reckoning.
“Debate over climate — whether it is changing, and if so what to do about it — has become a culture wars issue over the years to the point where it has proved to be a useful political device for parties of the right,” wrote columnist Tony Walker in the Sydney Morning Herald. But, he noted, “the ground is shifting politically,” with more and more Australians recognizing the urgency of the environmental threat they face.