Australia's Fires Heat Up Climate Change Tensions

 /  Feb. 3, 2020, 8:32 a.m.

Australia Fire

New Year’s Day in Mallacoota, a small beach town in the Australian state of Victoria, dawned with blood-red skies and the smell of smoke in the air. Residents and vacationers were forced to flee to the beach when the fire reached the edges of town on December 30. With people stranded on the beach, the Australian Navy was forced to stage a mass evacuation using their own ships. This is just one of many stories exhibiting the abnormal intensity of this season’s bushfires in Australia. 

About 15.6 million acres of Australia have burned since the series of bushfires began in late July. The fire season, which usually begins in October, started unusually early. New South Wales, the most populous state in Australia, has been the worst affected, with 105 fires burning in the territory alone on January 13. Some fires span state lines, such as a “mega-fire” straddling Victoria and New South Wales. 

These fires could burn for months, impacting humans and wildlife alike. It is estimated that over one billion animals have been killed by the fires. This figure is devastating for a country renowned for its biodiversity and endangered species. In addition, 27 people have died as a result of the fires. The 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria, the worst bushfire crisis in the nation’s history, had a death count of 173. 

While natural disasters usually lead to heightened unity and solidarity in a nation, this year’s bushfires have proved to be a divisive flashpoint in Australian politics. It began when Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, was spotted on vacation in Hawaii during the height of the crisis in late December. Central to the outrage is both Morrison’s cavalier attitude towards the fire crisis and his dismissal of a force scientists view as a main catalyst for the devastation of Australia’s bushfires: climate change. 

Australia’s Climate Crisis 

Australia is getting hotter. Two of Australia’s hottest days ever were in December of 2019, at 41.9°C, or 107.2°F, on average across the country. A main contributor to the fires’ ferocity this year is a climate effect called the Indian Ocean Dipole, in which the temperature of the water is much higher in the eastern Indian Ocean and much cooler in the western Indian Ocean. The cooler sea temperature means less rain for Australia and, as a result, drought and intensified fires. 

Scientists from the United Kingdom, among others, have argued that climate change is central to why Australia is seeing worse fires. This past year was the driest and warmest on record for Australia. A review of research papers on the impact of climate change on fire conditions demonstrated a link between climate change and increased periods of fire weather, or a hot and dry climate which makes it easier for fires to start. In fact, Australia has already warmed by 1.4℃ over the pre-industrial global average temperature of the 1850s.

Yet, while Australia is clearly warming, its politicians have not accepted climate change as a major factor in these fires. Morrison has opposed a number of steps to curb climate change and its effects, such as ending or reducing coal mining and taxing heat trapping emissions. While Morrison says his government believes there is a link between climate change and the fire crisis, no new policies have been announced. Morrison did announce an inquiry into how the government’s response to the crisis, which will specifically look into deployment of emergency resources and evacuation procedures. Yet public critique abounds, as the inquiry involved no shift to renewable energy or emission reductions. 

Morrison himself has a questionable track record when it comes to climate policy. He has called the climate protests occurring around the country “indulgent and selfish.” As the treasurer two years ago, Morrison stood up in the House of Representatives with a lump of coal and told members, “It won’t hurt you.” As the world’s largest producer of coal, Australia has a political stake in protecting a key aspect of its economy, as well as an incredibly powerful coal lobby that discourages politicians from making the move towards renewable energy. 

However, public opinion seems to be largely in favor of such a shift. 81 percent of Australians believe that climate change will result in more droughts and flooding, and 64 percent of Australians believe in aiming for zero net emissions by 2050. This is a marked difference from the priorities of Morrison’s government. 

The Impact on Australia

The effects of the fires on Australia have been drastic. The wildfires are releasing millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, only intensifying the climate change that led to the fires in the first place. This effect, called a climate feedback loop, will greatly increase Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. It is thought that the fires have released the equivalent of one full year of Australia’s typical greenhouse gas emissions. While regrowth of these forests will draw carbon dioxide back in, regrowth in certain areas, like the burnt megafire area of New South Wales and Victoria, will take many years. 

Australia’s environment may suffer for decades to come. Even the water environments are not safe, as bushfire smoke contains elements like nitrogen and phosphorus that can cause algae overgrowths and coral reef deaths. 

In the short term, these fires will also force Australia to confront an economic downturn. The cost of the damage so far exceeds $4.4 billion, the record set by the Black Saturday fires of 2009. Increased air pollution and a drop in tourism will further contribute to economic stress. Specific industries, such as timber, agriculture, dairy, and tourism, have also been hit hard. The fires may even impact the global food supply, as the pollution from the fires may stunt and kill large swaths of crops like wheat, a main export of Australia. Further, as of January 7, 6,200 livestock have been killed in New South Wales alone, which may increase beef prices as Australia is the second-largest exporter of beef in the world.

The people of Australia have suffered in numerous ways as well. Emergency room visits increased more than 34 percent between December 30 and January 5 compared to the previous year. Scientists do not yet know the consequences of long-term exposure to bushfire smoke, especially on children’s developing lungs. Psychological effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, are also expected, as these were found in firefighters and citizens after the Black Saturday bushfires. 

The Political Impact

Despite the devastation and potential long-term effects of the bushfires, Australia’s politicians are not united on the issue of climate change. Australia’s three major political parties are the Liberal-National Coalition, the Labor Party, and the smaller Greens. Each has differing opinions on climate change. 

Morrison is a member of The Coalition, which has struggled to come up with adequate solutions to climate change. Morrison himself dumped the previous prime minister’s emission-reducing energy policy. He has proposed a $2 billion climate solutions fund, but has not made any concrete changes that will reduce emissions. The Labor Party is more active on the issue of climate change, proposing vehicle emissions standards, more rapid emissions reduction, and the use of more renewable energy sources. Labor’s main goal is a 45 percent cut on emissions by 2030. 

The most ambitious party when it comes to climate change, however, is the Greens. The party has argued for a cease in coal exports used for electric power production by 2030, a ban on internal combustion vehicles, and a government-run company to help ensure the transition to renewable energy. Yet the Greens are also the smallest and least powerful of the top three parties, winning only 9.9 percent of the vote in the 2019 elections. This makes it difficult for the party to push for major changes. 

In the face of the crisis, the Greens have stuck to their plan and have condemned Morrison for his government’s inaction on climate change. Morrison and Labor have been apologetic for the bushfires, but have not yet developed a climate change-based response to the unprecedented bushfire season, besides an inquiry into resource distribution and general bushfire response methods. 

Those who do not believe in climate change also remain wary. Michael McCormack, the leader of the National Party (part of the Liberal-National coalition) refused to link climate change to the fires at all. Craig Kelly, a conservative parliament member who was tentatively backed by Morrison, has also been a leader of climate change denialists in recent days. While The Coalition continues to rule, the rhetoric will likely be that of sympathy rather than action. 

Ultimately, it may be the aftermath of the fires that will decide whether Australia’s politicians will support climate change reforms. Livelihoods, farms, and entire industries have been destroyed or upended. Constituents of regions like New South Wales and Victoria have suffered the most and will consequently demand more from their politicians. If protests continue as they have, disruptively and daily, politicians may be forced to take action. However, the next Australian elections are not until 2022, in which voters may prioritize climate change as a decisive issue and directly pressure their representatives to take action. 

In the end, time is the biggest factor. After the fires have burnt out, the media, as with most crises, will turn away from the scene and ease pressure on the government, since it will no longer be in the international eye. It will be up to the Australian people to keep the pressure up, either by continuing the current protests or by voting in 2022. 

The picture used in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Common Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The original image can be found here.

Julianna Rossi

Julianna Rossi is a third year Political Science major and Human Rights minor. Originally from Los Angeles, California, she spends her time on campus as the Chair of UChiVotes and as a communications intern for the IOP. Besides that, she loves cooking and baking, reading the news, and exploring Chicago.


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