THE BUSHFIRES eased over Christmas. But as 2020 approached, Australia’s inferno blazed anew. In the state of Victoria, thousands of people fled to the seashore on New Year’s Eve as fires ringed the coastal town of Mallacoota. Samuel McPaul, a volunteer firefighter, died earlier in neighbouring New South Wales when a “fire tornado”, as colleagues described it, overturned his vehicle. The federal government has called in military planes and ships to assist the evacuation of people sheltering on beaches in both states. Experts say the fires are the most extensive in Australia’s history. They have sparked heated debate about the impact of climate change and the government’s equivocal commitment to tackling it.
New South Wales is the country’s most populous state and has suffered some of the biggest losses: 11 lives and about 1,000 homes. The state’s bushfires have raged over an area of almost 40,000 square kilometres, nearly the size of Denmark. That is greater than the total area during the past three years’ fire seasons. These usually start in October, when Australians are preparing for the southern hemisphere’s summer. In 2019 the season began in July. A drought that started in eastern Australia three years ago has created much dry fuel (on December 18th Australia as a whole had its hottest day on record, at 41.9°C). The fires have spread across the country, closing the highway to the Nullarbor Plain that links Western Australia with the east coast.
In early December former fire chiefs called for an “emergency summit” on dealing with the growing threat of wildfires amid global warming. Scott Morrison, the prime minister, had different plans. Instead he took his family on a holiday to Hawaii, without any public announcement. After a public outcry, and the deaths of two firefighters during his absence, he returned just before Christmas. But he rejected requests to review his conservative Liberal-National coalition’s lethargic approach to climate change.
The government’s climate policy takes its tone from John Howard, a former Liberal prime minister, who once dismissed calls for action as “the latest progressive cause” and a “substitute religion”. As the fires took hold in November Michael McCormack, the deputy prime minister, blamed “inner-city raving lunatics” for linking them with climate policy and Australia’s coal industry. Coal, a big source of carbon emissions, is Australia’s second-biggest export, and is used to generate almost two-thirds of its electricity. The coalition abolished a carbon tax the former Labor government had imposed to cut emissions. In place of this market-driven mechanism it set up a public fund worth A$3.5bn ($2.5bn), partly to pay polluters to cut emissions.
Critics say such measures are inadequate. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist, cited the fires when tweeting criticism of Australia’s climate policy. Mr Morrison responded that he was “not here to try and impress people overseas”. As the fires raged in Australia, some countries at a recent un climate conference in Madrid grumbled about Australia’s apparent sleight of hand, involving the use of carbon credits linked to its emission-reduction targets for 2020 towards meeting its higher targets for 2030. Angus Taylor, the energy minister, argues that because Australia is responsible for just 1.3% of global emissions, it “can’t single-handedly have a meaningful impact”.
The fires are raising the temperature of Australia’s climate-change debate. Mr Morrison says climate change is just one of “many factors” behind the inferno. Greg Mullins, a former fire chief, retorts that these factors all relate to climate change. He and fellow ex-chiefs still plan to convene a meeting with officials and experts about the problem. “We’ll invite the prime minister,” he says. Some business leaders also want the government to adopt a more robust climate policy. Peter Harmer, the head of iag, a big insurance company, speaks of an “urgent need for Australia to prepare for and adapt to climate change”. With no end in sight to the bushfire crisis, such calls are bound to grow.