Australia has the world’s attention. Currently, around 15 million acres — roughly twice the size of Belgium — have burned, around 2000 homes have been destroyed and 24 people have been killed. Thousands of people are stranded in regions where it is too late to evacuate, waiting for help from the 3000+ troops deployed.
Extreme heat thought to be caused by the Indian Ocean Dipole — a weather event where sea surface temperatures are warmer in the western half of the ocean and cooler in the east — combined with winds of up to 85mph and prolonged droughts make prime conditions for the fires to spread far quicker than they can be put out.
Although the country is currently seeing the first rain in a long time, it has been warned that the worst is yet to come. On Saturday in Penrith, just west of Sydney, temperatures reached 48.9C. This was believed to be the hottest place on earth for a short time. In a week in December, all-time heat records were broken on consecutive days. The highest average temperature for the country reached 40.9C on Tuesday, just for this to be eclipsed by a 41.9C temperature average on Wednesday.
Australia has always experienced extreme heat and bushfires but they are increasing in intensity. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO) report on the State of the Climate in Australia found that there has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather and the length of fire seasons since the 1950s. The current fires started in September and are expected to finally die out in April. Future climate projections expect the number of high fire weather danger days to increase if greenhouse gas emissions are left unchecked.
In November, a coalition of former fire chiefs in Australia said that they had tried to meet with Prime Minister Scott Morrison since April to discuss the likely devastation from the upcoming fire season but were shunned from conversations, stating that the government “fundamentally doesn’t like talking about climate change.” The chiefs — formally those on the frontline of these fires — all agree that climate change is making bushfires deadlier.
Another Medium story published before Christmas highlighted the government’s poor response to the current crisis. I recommend you read it, but I’ll summarise:
- The Prime Minister has entirely rejected the role of climate change in the fires and won’t be making ‘reckless’ cuts to the coal industry
- The public was told that volunteer firefighters wanted to be fighting the blaze and therefore did not require compensation, even though many had been away from work for weeks. They have now been provided with a small sum, although with obvious reluctance from the PM.
- Mr Morrison decided it was an appropriate time to go on a beach holiday to Hawaii, his team denied he was out of the country and then he had to publicly announce that he would be returning after the news broke that two firefighters had died.
Since then, the tensions between the public have grown larger. A few days ago, his visits to affected towns were cut short due to resident anger. The nation has been vocal in their need for more resources, with comedian Celeste Barber starting a fundraiser that raised the same amount of money (AUD $20 million) in under 48 hours than the government has provided. The current figure sits at a little under $40 million. Importantly, beyond that, the world has been critical of Australia’s climate policies.
Climate change and environmental degradation are inherently political, and often divisive, topics, but even more so in Australia. The current administration has no desire to engage in meaningful climate talks, therefore hindering significant climate action. Even now, with bushfires grabbing the world’s headlines, climate change is not at the forefront of the national agenda.
But Australia has been failing on climate for a while. Given its position as a leading developed country, Australia’s climate policy is underwhelming at best and virtually non-existent at worst. In 2018, Scott Morrison abandoned the country’s policy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a move that was viewed as essentially withdrawing from the Paris Agreement altogether — placing Morrison in the same company as Donald Trump.
The National Energy Guarantee (NEG) was a policy aimed to ensure electricity companies would have to meet emissions targets. Instead, Morrison opted to focus on reducing the cost of energy. Currently, Australia is targeting a 26–28 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. Even with low targets, the latest projections show Australia is expected to miss them, with reductions of 16 per cent.
The 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranks the 61 nations accounting for over 90 per cent of global emissions. Australia finished rock bottom on climate policy, with a score of 0 out of 100. It concluded that they have actually gone backwards under Morrison.
It’s not just the Prime Minister doing very little in the current crisis, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack rejected the link between climate change and bushfires, saying that those affected “don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time.”
Instead, suggesting the — highly predictable and incredibly unhelpful — need for sympathy and understanding. Another classic case of the ‘now is not the right time to talk about the very thing we’ve been warned about for years’ approach to leadership.
Throughout this period, the government has stood firm on its ‘back to black’ approach with continued support for the coal industry. Here lies much of the problem. Phasing out pollution from coal is widely accepted as a necessary step to reduce emissions, meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and, ultimately, keep temperature rise as low as possible.
Australia is a nation heavily reliant on coal. According to the International Energy Agency, Australia ranked third in the world for coal production in 2017, behind China and the US. Government justification for coal lies in the economic value it brings, both via exports and employment.
While this argument is good on paper, it holds less credibility when you consider how little support tourism and agriculture — two incredibly climate-sensitive and economically beneficial sectors — get from the government. The Great Barrier Reef alone brings in around AUD $5 billion each year from tourism and has essentially been left to defend itself.
Public opinion on climate change also differs from the government. Each year, The Australia Institute produces a ‘Climate of the Nation’ report, tracking the changing attitudes towards climate change. In 2019, it found that 76 per cent of respondents rank solar power in their top 3 energy sources, making it by far the most popular.
Also, 73 per cent of Queenslanders want coal-fired power stations phased out, either as soon as possible or gradually. Despite this, a new, controversial coal mine was approved in 2019, again, in Queensland. The Indian owned Adani company was given the green light to begin extraction of up to 60 million tonnes per year for 60 years.
This is concerning for a couple of reasons. Firstly, estimates show that emissions from burning the extracted coal could amount to around 77 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Secondly, extraction relies heavily on water. Around 250 litres of fresh water are needed per ton of coal produced. In a time of high-water stress, this impact could be disastrous.
Talking of water, 78 per cent of Australians said they are concerned that climate change will lead to water shortages in cities. Water insecurity is already a major problem, with prolonged drought and strict water usage rules in place. Even so, and in the middle of the current crisis, a new water mining agreement in Queensland was finalised at the end of December.
This deal allows a Chinese company to extract 96 million litres of water per year for a staggering 94 years. This project in Cherrabah is expected to cause long-term damage to the groundwater and aquifer system. Some estimates show the annual recharge to be around 40 million litres, less than half the agreed extraction.
A 2018 report by HSBC bank, titled ‘Our Fragile Planet’, conducted an analysis, using data from the International Disaster Database and the World Bank, on 67 countries to establish the most vulnerable to climate change. Interestingly, Australia ranked 9th as most vulnerable on energy transitions, the highest of any developed economy.
The same report found that this is not due to a lack of adaptive capacity. In fact, it concluded that Australia, alongside Norway and New Zealand, were actually best placed to respond to a changing climate. It is a severe lack of government interest rather than limited resources that are hindering the country’s climate action.
The current bushfires have once again sparked intense climate change dialogue that Australian leadership wants no part in. But it is obvious that they cannot ignore it for much longer. National, and global, condemnation of the handling of the situation, and Australia’s approach to climate change in general, has caused an even greater air of hostility between government and the public, with the latter demanding change.
With much of the fire season still left to come, current events may simply be a glimpse into a treacherous future if Australian leadership does not divert from its current course.