The environmental catastrophe playing out in Australia provides a terrifying glimpse of the “new normal” facing a warming world. Bushfires burning since September have now incinerated over 11.3 million acres, an area bigger than the Netherlands. At the latest count, eighteen people have died, and over a thousand homes have been destroyed.
Yellow smog hangs semi-permanently over major cities, a cloud so toxic that it caused an elderly woman to collapse and later die from respiratory distress after she stepped onto the tarmac of Canberra’s airport. Millions of Australians are being exposed to carcinogenic particles; simply breathing in Sydney’s air has been described as the equivalent of smoking thirty-four cigarettes a day.
Among the devastation, nearly half a billion animals have died, including a sizable proportion of New South Wales’s koalas. Almost certainly, entire species have been wiped out, as fire has swept through ecosystems never before exposed to flames.
Scenes from the affected areas have become increasingly apocalyptic. Tens of thousands of rural residents remain without power. A state of emergency prevails in New South Wales, the third declared in the past few months. In the Victorian disaster zones, people still await extraction by naval vessels.
Almost certainly, worse lies ahead. At the time of writing, some 150 fires are blazing, and forecasters expect hot and gusty weather in the next days. And with two months left of summer, there is more to come.
Bushfires aren’t new in Australia, but the increased temperatures of a warming world make them hotter, more intense, and harder to fight. They come earlier, they last longer, and they reach places previously unaffected.
All of this, of course, accords both with international trends and with specific predictions for Australia. Back in 2007, for instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (echoing any number of Australian reports) warned that “heat waves and fires are virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency.”
In the face of such warnings, Australia has only increased the rate and magnitude of carbon extraction and consumption. The country now rates as the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels (only just behind Russia and Saudi Arabia). Further to that, it recently played an outsized role in the collapse of the COP 25 climate talks, where the Australian insistence on claiming so-called carryover credits helped derail a push for more ambitious targets.
At the same time, both federal and state governments want the multinational giant Adani to open its vast Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, a project that will facilitate shale gas extraction in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo basin, and new coal and gas ventures in the north Bowen and Galilee Basins, adding 4.6 billion tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere.
“It’s unprecedented,” says gas analyst Bruce Robertson. “This is the biggest tranche of fossil fuel projects I have seen in my lifetime . . . They are accelerating the development of fossil fuels at the moment at a pace I’ve never seen. The scale is mind-blowing.”
Last year — the warmest in Australian history, with temperatures 1.52 degrees Celsius above average — the government granted environmental approval to the Norwegian energy company Equinor for an oil well in the Great Australian Bight, an important nursery for the endangered southern right whale.
Coal and Troll
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s personal enthusiasm for coal — he once flaunted a lump of the stuff in parliament — goes some way to explain his bizarre insouciance about the current crisis.
In November, as NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned of “catastrophic” conditions taking risks to “uncharted territory,” Morrison used Twitter to send “thoughts and prayers” to bushfire victims — and followed up the slogan by tweeting a picture of himself at a Brisbane sporting venue. “Going to be a great summer of cricket,” he said, “and for our firefighters and fire-impacted communities, I’m sure our boys will give them something to cheer about.”
In December, as conditions worsened, Morrison could not be found — until journalists located him holidaying in Hawaii. A widely circulated photo showed him in shorts, holding a beer, and giving the shaka gesture to the camera.
Eventually shamed into returning home, he hosted a New Year’s Eve party for cricketers in his official residence, and gave a peculiar speech in which he again presented the fires as a backdrop to summer sport.
Some have attributed Morrison’s tone-deaf response to his much-publicized Pentecostalism, suggesting he understands the blazes as divinely ordained. But his behavior is better understood in relation to Australian conservatism’s increasing reliance on culture war as a means of doing politics.
When, in the May federal election, the incumbent Liberals pulled off an upset victory, right-wingers took the result as confirming the hostility felt by so-called quiet Australians to an “elite” progressive agenda — and with it, action on climate change.
Conservative MP Craig Kelly, for instance, reportedly urged members of the Parliamentary Friends of Coal Exports (yes, that’s a thing!) to “burn as much oil and gas as you can over summer: put your roast in a gas-fired oven, fill up your gas bottles, and fly from one end of the country to the other.”
The government felt sufficiently confident about public indifference to climate change that it promised draconian legislation against Extinction Rebellion and other activists, with federal Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton describing environmentalists as “fringe-dwellers,” who should be publicly shamed and face mandatory jail sentences. “These people aren’t protesters, they’re anarchists,” he explained. “They don’t believe in democracy, they don’t believe in our way of life.”
Morrison’s coal-and-troll strategy meant that, for much of the year, senior Liberals regarded any acknowledgment of the relationship between global warming and bushfires as an unacceptable concession to the Left.
Thus, in September, as conditions in southeast Queensland and northern NSW broke records on the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index, the minister for drought and natural disasters, David Littleproud, told an interviewer that he wasn’t sure “if climate change is man-made.”
As late as December 31, Energy Minister Angus Taylor published an article in Murdoch’s denialist publication, the Australian, headlined, “We should be proud of our climate change efforts.” It was a declaration that coincided with the widely broadcast image of five thousand people huddling on a beach in the seaside town of Mallacoota and then wading into the water to escape encroaching flames.
Not surprisingly, the government is now facing a vocal backlash. When, for instance, Scott Morrison ventured to the fire-devastated town of Cobargo, angry locals abused him in the street. “You won’t be getting any votes down here, buddy,” one resident yelled.
In another clip, a firefighter refused to shake the prime minister’s hand (though Morrison grabs it anyway). “I’m sure he’s just tired” was Morrison’s justification. “No,” replied an official, “he’s just lost his house.”
All of a sudden, Scott “man-of-the-people” Morrison sounds like an antipodean David Brent. Even the NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance (a member of the prime minister’s own party) has acknowledged that Morrison “probably deserved” the treatment he received in Cobargo.
If Morrison’s seeming collapse of authority signals an opening for the Labor Party (ALP), it’s not clear that their leadership would be a significant improvement. At least the current ALP leader Anthony Albanese openly discusses the relationship between the fire crisis and global warming. But Labor stands shoulder to shoulder with the Liberal Party’s commitment to coal.
For instance, Albanese recently slapped down anti-coal sentiment within his party, relying on a version of the classic “drug dealer” argument: “If Australia stopped exporting today,” he said, “there would not be less demand for coal — the coal would come from a different place.”
That was on December 9, with the country already well and truly aflame. A few days later, Labor Shadow Resources Minister Joel Fitzgibbon — a member of Kelly’s bipartisan pro-coal group — urged Australians to stop “demonizing” the mineral. In Queensland, it’s a Labor administration fast-tracking Adani and a Labor premier calling for climate protesters to be imprisoned.
We’ve all heard powerful speeches about climate change from Al Gore and Barack Obama and (my sometime correspondent) Kevin Rudd. But we know that they’ve made very little difference to ordinary people. To date, the international conferences on the environment have mostly succeeded in providing a backdrop for such oratorical flights, even as carbon emissions increase year upon year.
In Australia, the bushfire catastrophe provides an opening for a different approach. After all, climate change no longer represents a possible future in this country. It’s self-evidently something happening to ordinary people right here and now.
An opportunity thus exists to link short-term redress and long-term solutions with, for instance, the obvious need for rescue plans in affected areas legitimizing the structural reforms that might facilitate a decarbonized economy.
In the past, efforts to break Australia’s dependence on coal might have seemed a threat to employment in rural Australia. But the current devastation in remote towns shows how the long-term viability of country communities depends on a “just transition” away from mining.
Already, we’ve seen union members refuse to work in Sydney’s polluted haze — a particular mobilization that hints at the potential for broader climate action. Similarly, the rage of those people in Cobargo suggests a sentiment that might link the energy and idealism of the student climate strike with the social power of the working class.
Of course, it’s easy to talk about a new climate movement — and not so easy to build it, especially given the state of the Left. But what choice do we have?
The extent of the fires this year hints at what’s to come. What we face today represents just the beginning of what we’ll confront as global temperatures shift. Not every country will get fires. Some will face drought or flood or frost. But nowhere will remain unaffected by what’s coming down the pipeline.
The specific disaster gripping Australia foreshadows a broader crisis to which the international left must respond.