Firefighters battle a spot fire on November 13 2019 in Hillville, Australia. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/SAM MOOY
Firefighters battle a spot fire on November 13 2019 in Hillville, Australia. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/SAM MOOY

Canberra — Australia’s record on tackling climate change is getting tougher to defend for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as bushfires ravage the country’s east coast.

His government is refusing to discuss whether global warming has contributed to a longer dry season that’s fuelling ferocious blazes as summer has begins. One government legislator even questioned whether environmentalists had increased the threat of the fires that have so far claimed three lives and destroyed about one-million hectares of farmland and bush.

It’s emblematic of the government downplaying climate concerns amid criticism of its support for coal mining and perceived lack of action on reducing carbon emissions. It risks being out of step with businesses and voters who increasingly say climate change must be tackled with urgency. The deepening political divide is fast becoming a defining issue in Australia, the world’s driest inhabited continent.

A survey released in September shows that 77% of Australians believe climate change is occurring, up from 66% when the conservatives came to power in 2013. Even while the nation still generates the bulk of its electricity from coal, only 18% of respondents listed it in their top three preferred energy sources, with solar (76%) and wind (58%) seen as far more desirable than fossil fuels.

“There seems to be a national mood swing about climate change because more diverse segments of the community — farmers, businesses, tourism operators — are willing to voice their concerns when they see it negatively affecting their bottom lines,” said Paul Williams, a political analyst at Griffith University in Brisbane.

War of words

About 80 fires were burning on Wednesday across New South Wales, the nation’s most populous state, where about 200 homes have been destroyed in the past few days. The isolated blazes that broke out on Tuesday in Sydney, wreathing the city in an acrid smoke haze, have been doused.

While conditions eased in New South Wales, they worsened on Wednesday in Queensland state, where more than 60 fires were burning. A helicopter used in water-bombing a blaze crashed west of Brisbane, with media reporting the pilot had survived. Emergency crews have also fought blazes this week in South Australia and Western Australia.

Morrison has steadfastly brushed aside calls to discuss the role of climate change in the fires sweeping through rural areas, which are tinderbox dry after two years of drought. “The time to have those policy discussions are not in the middle of an operational response” when lives are at risk, he said Tuesday.

Morrison was asked by a radio host whether the blame for the current crisis lay not on climate change but on environmentalists. Government legislator Barnaby Joyce and sections of the media have suggested this week that such activists had successfully lobbied to scale back controlled burns designed to minimise the undergrowth that often fuels wild fires.

“There’s always going to be lessons after events like today and I think that’s obviously one that has to be tested as well,” Morrison said in response.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack this week blasted left-leaning Greens politicians who linked the fires to the government’s support of the coal industry. McCormack, who is also leader of the rural-based Nationals party, called those claims “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies”.

Joyce, a former deputy prime minister, suggested two of the three people who had died in the fires “were most likely people who voted for the Green party”.

Meanwhile, Morrison has been criticised by disaster management experts for not adequately tackling climate change, even as meteorologists warn the firefighting season is becoming longer and more intense.

Greg Mullins, a former New South Wales Fire and Rescue commissioner, wrote in a Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece on Monday that people who say the current conditions are normal “don’t know what they’re talking about”. He warned the warming climate was making the fire season longer, providing a narrower window in cooler months for authorities to perform controlled hazard-reduction burns.

“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’,” Mullins said. “But if not now, then when?”

Shifting opinion

Segments of Australia’s business community have also begun to call on the government to do more. Warning that some parts of Australia could become uninsurable due to climate change, the Insurance Council of Australia in October said governments must manage and lower the risks “through investments in mitigation”.

The council issued a statement on Wednesday saying it had received 450 bushfire related claims during the current crisis with insured losses estimated at A$50m (R511m). It expected “many more claims” in coming days.

Earlier in 2019, the National Farmers’ Federation joined the Australian Climate Roundtable, a broad collection of pro-business lobbyists, trade unions and environmental groups seeking “well-designed policy” to cut the nation’s emissions to zero.

Soon after winning power six years ago, the Liberal-National coalition scrapped the previous Labor government’s legislation that put a price on carbon emissions. While Morrison’s government says it will meet its Paris Agreement commitment to cut emissions, it’s been criticised by environmental groups and rivals for doing too little and for not penalising polluters.

While Morrison says Australia is responsible for just 1.3% of global emissions, environmentalists and the leaders of some South Pacific nations that are threatened by rising sea levels say his government needs to be called into account for its huge fossil-fuel exports, the largest after Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The irony for Morrison is while this week’s bushfire devastation is centred on regional areas of New South Wales and Queensland states, it was his backing of the influential coal-mining industry in closely-fought seats in those regions that helped him claim a surprise election victory in May.

Morrison, who in 2017 famously wielded a lump of coal in parliament in support of the industry, is backing a new project by India’s Adani Power that would further increase exports of the fossil fuel. His government is even considering underwriting coal-fired projects as it promotes an energy policy designed to prioritise lowering voters’ electricity costs rather than reducing emissions.

“There’s many Australians doing it tough financially who believe in climate change and want more renewables,” said Griffith University’s Williams. “Still, they haven’t moved on to the next stage about wanting to get rid of coal, simply because they don’t want to pay the higher energy bills that could facilitate that. Whether fires like this will make them reconsider, so that the government is pressured to take more action, remains to be seen.”


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