Australia’s Wildfires and Our Need for Grassroots Climate Activism

 /  Feb. 9, 2020, 8:45 p.m.


Pierre Markuse

The flaming crisis currently playing out in Australia does not feel real. Day by day, as almost theatrical images of bright orange skies, hellish pillars of fire, and huddled masses on beaches continue to circulate, Australia has come to feel less and less like an actual physical place and more like a distant dystopia. But the current crisis, the people and wildlife it has affected, and, most pressingly, what it can tell us about global sentiment surrounding environmentalist efforts, are all very real.

Since September, approximately 27 million acres of Australian land have been laid to waste by raging wildfires—an area about the size of Ohio. The lives of one billion animals have been claimed in the process, leaving potentially indelible marks on Australia’s many sensitive ecosystems. The fires have literally doubled Australia’s annual emissions from burning fossil fuels. These are staggering tallies. Online videos show flaming tornadoes and animals burning—nothing short of a horror story on all fronts.

The sheer magnitude of the fire characterizes it as a tragedy by any account. Yet one need not scrutinize data tables and figures to rationally understand that the situation on the ground begs for some sort of unified, long-term response beyond holding fundraisers and sending extra firefighters. Combating climate change is the heart of the issue. Climate change enabled the Australian disaster to reach the magnitude it has—and unless action is taken, it will continue to do so in the future.

The Australian government’s staunch anti-conservationist agenda remains unobstructed, even as the fires unfold in its backyard. In fact, anti-environmentalist propaganda has flourished through the Australian media, keen on conspiratorially shifting blame for the disaster away from rising temperatures and onto the supposed existence of hordes of Australian arsonists. But clearly, a coordinated arson attack on the scale of the current disaster seems wholly unlikely.

To the credit of these conspirators, yes, it is true that not every natural disaster can be attributed to rising temperatures. There were indeed other notable factors at play in Australia that contributed to the fires, namely the country’s characteristic dryness and the combustibility of many of its native plants. Yet the context in which any of these other factors might contribute to widespread wildfires is now more primed than ever before, adding to the likelihood that potential disasters will be both severe and sustained. Even if rising temperatures did not directly spark the Australian catastrophe, they certainly made it more likely.

The dialogue between proponents of the dangers of climate change and those who deny its very existence is played out at this point. Despite the former’s continual insistence that substantive research validates their fears, the damage has always seemed too gradual and unobtrusive to everyday life for the latter to deem climate change a significant threat. Though a troubling disagreement, the hope for climate activists has always been that once the dangers they had heralded did become noticeable in people’s everyday lives, people would reach across the aisle and rally to fight climate change. But if a nation set ablaze is not enough to motivate unanimity, much less convince the government of Australia itself of the dangers posed by rising temperatures, then what is?

Australia holds a notable distinction as one of the world’s largest and most lucrative exporters of coal, yet in the wake of this tragedy, Australia is doubling down on its coal industry, rather than taking steps towards minimizing it. As the fires rage on, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is still supervising the construction of the Carmichael Mine—which would, if built, be the largest coal mine in the world. It would be unreasonable to expect Australia to entirely and immediately forego its coal industry. But for the nation’s officials to actively continue to build the industry up whilst a climate crisis unfolds on their soil speaks volumes about where their priorities lie.

The Australia ordeal suggests that climate denial is not merely an outlook that loosely guides the actions of politicians and business officials, but rather it is morphing into a dogma that darkly perverts the very ideas of political and corporate responsibility to act as stewards of the environment we all inhabit. Judging by the response, or lack thereof, from Australian officials, it would seem that the doctrine of climate change denial will endure, come hell or high water—or rather, come hell or high fire.

It is still not clear where to go from here. Curling up and submitting to an impending climatic cataclysm surely is not an option, but, as the Australia experience has revealed, mobilizing the wealthy elites and the lofty officeholders of society is not a realistic path either. These puppets to the monetary allure of the climate change denial movement act as though they think that their penthouse views and high-security estates will shield them from disaster, but the fact of the matter is that Mother Nature will take no prisoners. The burden of action needs to be shifted away from individual world leaders, and onto a more capable and impassioned crowd.

Nature’s ticking time bomb can only be defused by increased grassroots mobilization. Much of the Australian public has already caught on—as of late, recurring protests demanding climate policy reform have begun in many major Australian cities. We in America are somewhat detached from the Australian catastrophe by way of sheer distance, but the devastation it foretells will be global in scale, especially if we do not translate our budding concern into concerted preservationism and environmental activism. 

Grassroots mobilization against the threat posed by climate change must match the global scale of its devastation, and then some—if not for our own peace of mind, then to compensate for those who are unwilling to face such an existential challenge head on.

The image featured with this article is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. The original was taken by Pierre Markuse and can be found here.

Vivek Parthasarathy


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