SYDNEY – Unprecedented wildfires in eastern Australia have turbocharged demands that the conservative government do more to tackle climate change and have rekindled an ideological fight over the science behind the blazes.
The huge fires have affected communities up and down the east coast, killing four people and affecting millions of Australians — threatening homes and blanketing major cities in hazardous smoke.
For many, the scale and intensity of the conflagrations, weeks before the Australian summer, have brought the dangers of climate change home.
“The whole east coast is on fire,” said Julie Jones, who almost lost her house in the Blue Mountains. “I think it’s climate change.”
A group of ex-fire chiefs on Thursday warned that climate change is “supercharging” the wildfire problem, and they challenged Prime Minister Scott Morrison over his failure to confront the issue.
“I am fundamentally concerned about the impact and the damage coming from climate change,” former fire chief Lee Johnson said. “The word ‘unprecedented’ has been used a lot, but it’s correct.”
For days Morrison has refused to address the link between climate and wildfires, arguing that the focus should be on victims. He has been heckled about climate change while touring fire-ravaged areas.
Morrison has made no secret of his support for the country’s lucrative mining industry, which accounts for more than 70 percent of exports and was worth a record 264 billion Australian dollars ($180 billion) in the last financial year. He once carried a lump of coal onto the floor of Parliament and recently proposed banning environmental boycotts of businesses.
His government insists Australia will meet its Paris climate agreement target of reducing emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent on 2005 levels by 2030. But the approval of vast coal mines like the controversial Adani project — which will ship most of its product overseas to be burned — make global targets of keeping warming below 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) more difficult.
Until now that has been good politics for the Liberal leader. His party unexpectedly won re-election in May, in part by framing the climate debate as a choice between jobs and higher energy costs in places such as coal-rich Queensland.
Morrison’s allies have also deployed the issue as a potent wedge issue to divide the electorate. When the Australian Greens attacked the government response to the wildfires this week, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack went on the offensive. “We don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital cities greenies at this time, when (people) are trying to save their homes,” he said.
But the scale of the wildfire crisis has made it more difficult for Morrison to dismiss his political foes as out-of-touch lefty city slickers.
And after several exhausting days of spearheading crisis response, Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said Wednesday the New South Wales Rural Fire Service acknowledged the new reality. “We are mindful that the science is suggesting that fire seasons are starting earlier, and extending longer,” he said.
The government’s own Bureau of Meteorology has acknowledged human-caused climate change is “influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bush-fire conditions.”
Scientists say the link between climate change and wildfires is complex but undeniable. Wind movements around Antarctica and sea temperatures in the Indian Ocean can help determine fire-friendly conditions in Australia. Warming provides key ingredients for fires to thrive: high temperatures, low humidity, strong winds and drought.
“Bush fires are not directly attributable to climate change,” said Janet Stanley of the University of Melbourne. “However, the fast-warming climate is making bush fires more frequent and intense.”
A 2019 survey by think tank The Australia Institute found 81 percent of people are concerned climate change will cause more droughts and flooding, while 64 percent want the government to set a target of net-zero emissions by 2050.
Claire Pontin, a deputy mayor in badly hit northern New South Wales, said it is “always” the right time to discuss climate change: “It’s not going to go away if we bury our heads in the sand.”