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Australia: The Fires and Our Future

After these raging bushfires, I hope that Australia’s federal government will create a full national strategy for climate adaptation. But even that may prove to be too much. The best hope for change lies not with central government but with the states and industry.

Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

Ember and thick smoke from bushfires, Braemar Bay, New South Wales, Australia, January 4, 2020

Melbourne, Australia—Australia is no stranger to bushfire. In 1994, in Sydney, I lost a house to one, and in 2002, just north of Sydney, I fought off another. But I’ve never experienced anything like the current fire season before. These bushfires have been burning since September, taking lives and property across the nation, but the worst came in late December, just as families were settling into their holidays.

The high summer period between Christmas and Australia Day (January 26) is Australia’s grandes vacances. Offices close and people resort to campsites and holiday shacks on the golden, unspoiled beaches so characteristic of our country, to fish, barbeque, and let the kids run wild. For many, it’s the season that defines Australia.

But over the last couple of months, in some coastal towns, day turned to night as smoke blocked out the sun. Fierce walls of flame forced thousands to abandon their possessions and seek shelter in the shallows. In what may prove to be the biggest evacuations in the nation’s history, Australia’s Defence Force was called on to convey thousands to safety, while firefighting volunteers and police officers shepherded convoys of vehicles through perilous roads out of harm’s way. The Eyre, the country’s only highway linking Western Australia and South Australia, was blocked by fires for twelve days, leaving drivers trapped on both sides of the Nullarbor Plain. Even one of the nation’s busiest highways, the Hume, which links Melbourne and Sydney, has been occasionally closed by the flames.

The scale of the fires is such as to overwhelm the media and bewilder the public. Until I awoke on January 2 to smothering smoke blown across Bass Strait, I was unaware that Tasmania, too, was ablaze—the crisis is so widespread across southeastern Australia that there was scarcely any media coverage of wildfires on the island some three hundred miles south.

To date, some 17.8 million acres have been burned, with no state spared. With the worst of the traditional fire season, which is normally from December to March, still ahead of us, and with little rain forecast, it will be months before the danger is over. To date, twenty-eight people have died, and for those surviving in the fire zones, fearful suspense has become a feature of their lives. The fires are like some hidden beast, toying with the fates of entire communities for weeks on end, before pouncing with deadly effect. For some, the dread becomes so unbearable that they say they want to “bring it on,” just to end the agony of uncertainty and waiting.

It is very difficult for anyone living outside Australia to comprehend what the last few months have been like. The great cities of Melbourne, Sydney, and Canberra have been smoke-bound for months now, the air quality frequently as poor as that in Delhi or Beijing. On January 6, the smog was so thick in Canberra, the national capital, that it forced the closure of government departments and the national university.

The smoke is inescapable, and more or less acrid depending on whether it has burned buildings, forests, or flesh. The smell of burning insinuates itself into houses—there is no way to keep it out. Opening the front door and being confronted with its intensity has become a daily reminder that something has gone terribly wrong in the country.

Doctors are warning of an epidemic of ill-health triggered by smoke exposure, and on the worst days they recommend that children, the elderly, and the infirm remain indoors. Australians pride themselves on their natural surroundings, and as, week after week, people emerge from a swim besmirched with ash or struggling to breathe, the sense of outrage and terror has grown.

The fires have also precipitated a crisis for Australia’s biodiversity. During September and October, vast blazes burned deep into some of the nation’s most treasured rainforests of southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales—regions that have never previously sustained wildfires. On Kangaroo Island (the third largest such landmass in Australia’s coastal waters), around half of the koala population has been incinerated in recent days, while in New South Wales perhaps a third of these marsupials has perished. Overall, it has been estimated that up to a billion wild animals have been affected by the fires. While it is too early to be sure, some researchers fear that entire species will have been driven to extinction by the conflagration.

2019 was Australia’s hottest year on record, with the annual maximum temperature 1.52 degrees Celsius above previous records. In early January, parts of western Sydney reached an astonishing 120 degrees Fahrenheit. 2019 was also Australia’s driest year on record, and 2018 was exceptionally dry as well, particularly across the nation’s agricultural heartland, the Murray-Darling Basin. Never in the nation’s recorded history have there been two such low rainfall years back to back in this region.

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The consequences for food production are dire. Australia was forced to import wheat in 2019 for the first time in twelve years, and this year the rice crop is almost non-existent, while farming towns throughout the region have been forced to truck in water. The fires have added to the farmers’ woes, with around 12 percent of the nation’s huge sheep flock and 9 percent of its cattle having lost their habitats or died, though the number of livestock killed is yet to be determined.

The nation has not lacked warnings of the dangerous future it faces. The first scientific report warning of an increase in dangerous fires was published in 1985. Australia’s Climate Council (for which I’m the chief councillor) has published eleven reports over the past six years warning of the increasing danger of bushfires as fire intensity strengthens and the fire season gets longer. The nation’s retired fire chiefs have, since April, been seeking a meeting with the prime minister, Scott Morrison, to brief him on the dangers the nation faces but have been refused.

The link between the fires, drought, and climate change is clear. For decades, climate models have predicted a hotter, drier Australia thanks to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Were greenhouse gases at pre-industrial levels, natural factors alone would produce a year as hot as 2019 just once every 360 years. But add the effect of human-emitted greenhouse gases and the probability drops to one year in eight—a forty-five-fold increase in probability.

Scott Morrison was on holiday in Hawaii with his family at the height of this bushfire crisis. His whereabouts were concealed from the public, and since returning, he has been derided as missing in action. His attempts at addressing the situation have misfired, most spectacularly when he approved an advertisement trumpeting the actions the government was taking, which turned out to be authorized not by the federal government, but by Morrison and his political party. The ad was criticized as a political move, intended to promote the Liberal Party’s response to the bushfires. (Morrison has since said there were “things [he] could have handled on the ground much better.”) Widely remembered as the man who brought a lump of coal into the Australian parliament in 2017, saying that there was nothing to fear from it, it seems unlikely Morrison will be able to re-establish his credibility.

He is not alone in his denialism. Australia is set to become the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, and the second-largest exporter of coal. A significant minority of federal conservative politicians are climate change deniers, as well as part of the “revolving door” system of Australian politics—whereby politicians enter as lobbyists for the fossil-fuel industry, emerge as government ministers, and then exit politics to become directors of fossil-fuel companies.

I’m fairly certain that Australia’s bushfire crisis will not change this system. The next federal election is two and a half years away, and there’s just too much self-interest—too much money to be made pandering to the fossil-fuel industry—even if the cost of it is to send the country up in smoke. We’ll hear much about helping the affected communities, and indeed 2 billion Australian dollars have already been pledged by the prime minister to that end. I hope that Australia’s federal government will create a full national strategy for climate adaptation. But even that may prove to be too much.

The best hope for change lies not with central government but with the states and industry. Some states have ambitious targets for clean energy, which can be accelerated. The cost of burning fossil fuels is now there for all to see, and business—from insurance to finance, and even mining—now sees that a change of direction is needed. I am even more certain that the public demonstrations will become more vehement. One woman who lost her house to the fires set up the charred remnants in front of Parliament House, demanding action on climate change. A recent march on the prime minister’s Sydney residence, Kirribilli House, was as angry as any demonstration I’ve seen, and the riot police were called out to deal with it. Only a brave or foolhardy business leader would promote a new coal mine in the current environment.

Australia is the world’s fifteenth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and at the back of the pack for climate action, as its emissions from the burning of fossil fuels continue to grow. Australians now understand that each ton of CO2 we emit will fuel tomorrow’s fires. As a result of the last decade of lost opportunities, much future damage is already locked in. But things can always get worse—and only decisive global action on climate change, with Australia playing a central role—can avert that.

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