Australia Burning

Chloe Hooper

A tree on fire yesterday near Tahmoor, New South Wales Photo © Dean Lewins/EPE-EFE/Shutterstock

A recent Facebook post shows the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, up a ladder installing a fleet of neon reindeer across his roof’s guttering. ‘No matter what’s going on each year,’ he says, ‘getting in the Christmas spirit has always been such an important part of our family life. I do the lights.’

Unfortunately, Morrison hasn’t been able to enjoy his light show in the lead up to Christmas Day. This week, while Australia faces an unprecedented environmental catastrophe, the prime minister flew to Hawaii with his wife and children for a ‘well-deserved’ holiday.

In the last three months of 2019, fires across the country have burned more than three million hectares. Nine people have been killed and up to a thousand homes have been lost. The destruction of animal and plant species – including ancient Gondwana forest – beggars the imagination. Sydney has been blanketed in smoke on and off for weeks. Wednesday was the hottest Australian day on record (surpassing the record set the previous day). And summer – the real fire season – has only just begun. Every year it starts earlier.

‘It is clear that climate change has contributed to setting records of this type,’ says the manager of climate monitoring at the Bureau of Meteorology. But faced with daily inescapable evidence of disaster – people wearing masks in Sydney’s streets; unending evacuation messages running along the bottom of TV screens – our incorrigible man of the people has been oddly reticent. When Queensland suffered floods in February, the prime minister was quickly on the ground, touring the damage. The fires have proved more complicated for him.

Climate change denialism is such a mainstream part of Australian political life – and an accepted position across our dominant media corporation, News Corp – that it’s surprising to hear government officials speak with any candour about global warming. In mid-November, with bushfire conditions graded as ‘catastrophic’, public servants from the New South Wales Department of Planning, Industry and Environment attended a conference on adapting to climate change. They were directed not to discuss the links between accelerating temperatures and the bushfires raging around them. ‘It’s an absolute disgrace to be talking about climate change while we have lost lives and assets,’ the state’s deputy premier said.

We’re yet to discover whether the effects of these firestorms – conservative rural communities’ sense that they are living under siege; the blanketing of capital cities in smoke; the immense financial cost – will force a long-term shift in climate policy. Morrison, when he’s been available for questioning, has been forced to backpedal on his claims that Australia’s carbon emissions have no connection to the fires. Now he acknowledges that climate change is a factor, ‘amongst many other issues’.

Morrison is the most religious prime minister this deeply secular nation has ever elected. On the May election trail, News Corp showed footage of a cap-wearing ‘ScoMo’ shearing sheep or turning sausages at local barbecues. But another video, taken with Morrison’s permission, showed him joining enthusiastically with the worshippers talking in tongues at the service he attends every Sunday at Sydney’s Horizon Church. Horizon preaches a strain of Pentecostalism that believes the End Times are coming (‘for the lord will execute judgment by fire’ etc.). Could it be that at some level the PM counts God’s will, if not his wrath, among the ‘other issues’ causing the fires?

On the days when the air quality in Sydney is 12 times the ‘hazardous’ threshold, it is interesting to ponder whether the Pentecostalists are as appalled and frightened as the rest of us, or comforted by a belief that God’s will is being exercised and, as believers, they’ll be all right. Could Morrison’s strangely stifled response to the mega-blazes have something to do with his evangelical faith?

No doubt the reason is more mundane. Famous for bringing a lump of coal into Parliament and lauding it as a God-given civilising force, Morrison continues to receive backing from the coal lobby, and his premiership rests firmly on the support of the climate change deniers in his government. You might think Australia would be the last country on earth to allow new super mines to add more fossil fuel to the load. But Morrison, refreshed from his trip to Hawaii, plans to do just that.


  • 21 December 2019 at 1:14am
    wse9999 says:
    Today perhaps more than ever there is irrational collective expectation abroad that governments can fix everything, even „climate change“.
    Irrational too is the phrase „climate change denialism“.
    Denying „climate change“ (CC) is like denying the sun comes up each day [which of course it doesn’t, it’s the earth spinning].
    And it certainly matters.
    Thus long before humankind’s transformational industrialisation we know that CC had a major impact on pre-industrial societies, was almost surely responsible for some pivotal turns in humankind‘s trajectory, like the epic shift from hunter-gathering to farming, like the emergence of cities [about 5000 years later. Why the gap?), and like the end of the Bronze Age around the eastern Mediterranean, c1200BC, making room for the rise of Classical Greece.
    Meanwhile for Australia Antarctic ice core data shows a 1000 years of varying drought experience, the worst patch being in the 12th C.
    Given the major swings in climate for eons before industrialisation the real challenge today is to understand what impact industrialisation is having. If CC is anything it is exceedingly complex in its processes and mechanisms.
    In my lifetime the atmospheric concentration in up sharply, like well over 30%. But the average temp rise so far is less than one degree. Why the big disconnect? I dont know, nor is it at all clear anyone else does.
    So back to hot smokey Sydney today. Yes the fires are serious but „disaster“ it is not. „Black Saturday“ in Victoria 2009 was arguably a disaster, 180 dead and over 2000 homes gone.
    And can the governments honestly do anything about it?
    Would halving emissions in Australia have any impact? And how soon?
    And even if the big global emitters curb emissions sharply, what impact and when?

  • 21 December 2019 at 8:13pm
    Graucho says:
    For all the conferences, speeches and protests. There has been a deafening silence on dealing with the changes we have already seen and, given that climate is a dynamic system with leads and lags, we will continue to have to cope with for the next 10 years even if carbon emissions were reduced to zero tomorrow.
    When oceans warm they evaporate more water, when air is warm it can carry more moisture. For the UK, living downwind of a very large pond, this means good bye to steady drizzle and hello to receiving our rain in very large dollops all through autumn, winter and spring. In the summer the lands to the south and east of us will heat up rapidly giving rise to high pressure areas that will visit us with heat waves and drought. This cries out for a national program of hydro electric schemes. You get clean green energy 24/7 at the flick of a switch, you get flood control and in the dry spells you get irrigation and domestic water.
    The other nasty which will creep up on us more insiduously is rising sea levels. If the manifestos said anything about coastal defences, I missed it. Build dual purpose defences that double as tide-pools, stop the inundation and get more clean green energy.

  • 21 December 2019 at 10:56pm
    wse9999 says:
    There’s a v good BBC article 20 December putting the latest fires in historic context.
    Yes serious - 8 dead, including related road accidents, and large area burned - but far from the worst so far.
    The area burned is now bigger than California summer 2018, but there lives and houses lost were far higher because of greater population denisty.
    Most of the area burned so far is largely wilderness.
    What strikes one is that given most fires are lit naturally by lightning [like the large fires near Sydney now}then these fires will have been part of life in Australia for eons past.
    And presumably with serious loss of life for indigenous peoples given the fires are mostly in the forested hills and ranges up and down the east coast and given the people had no means of easy escape.
    Yes worrying is that a significant number of fires have been deliberate, and a number of these have killed people, including one of the recent fires.

  • 22 December 2019 at 9:24am
    Ron Brown says:
    I would suggest reading Ms Hooper’s very fine book “The Arsonist.” It amuses me when corespondents make claims that climate change has been around for centuries. My reply is the Earth has never tried to support 7.8 billion people before, many of whom are consuming huge amounts of energy and creating unprecedented amounts of carbon.
    Sadly I think governments around the world are infested with appalling leaders. We in Australia have one with extremely limited ability.

  • 23 December 2019 at 2:36pm
    Norman Ravitch says:
    At least in Australia and in the United States when you scratch a Christian believer you usually find a hypocrite. My own explanation is that Christianity was invented by a hypocrite, PAUL OF TARSUS, and had little if anything to do with the real JESUS OF NAZARETH. Not everyone will agree about St. Paul but many might about hypocrisy in general: what La Rochefoucauld in the 17th century called "the homage that vice pays to virtue."

  • 26 December 2019 at 10:50pm
    Stephen Sloan says:
    The Russians obtained Antarctic ice cores containing 800,000 years of climate history. The Europeans for a longer period. That evidence suggests that if not for human activity the earth would be headed back into another Ice Age. In places like Baffin Island the snow on the ground from last winter would still be there when next winter's snow started falling. Industrial civilisation is a heat engine.

  • 27 December 2019 at 4:20am
    Simon says:
    Climate change seems to be factor in the lengthening of the fire season in Australia (as it does in California). But it is poor policy only to focus on climate change as a way of ameliorating fires or indeed to use it as a stick for beating politicians for whom we have no sympathy. Casual empiricism suggests that poor bush management is to blame for the magnitude of the fires we’ve witnessed in New South Wales. Enviro-friendly local authorities have been derelict in keeping fire access roads operable as they have been with conducting controlled burns. Leave the bush alone, is (one hopes was) their mantra. The first Australians understood the efficacy of controlled burns but as with much else no one listens to them.
    It is to be hoped that after this summer a rational inquiry is established to see what practical lessons can be learned. Top of the list must be a return to active management of our bush.

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