SYDNEY – Under-fire Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday rejected calls for “reckless” and “job-destroying” cuts to the country’s vast coal industry in the face of a deadly climate-fueled bush fire crisis.
Morrison’s conservative government has fiercely defended the lucrative coal industry in Australia, which produces a third of global coal exports and provides work in key swing electoral districts.
“I am not going to write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries,” Morrison told the Seven Network, in one of several morning interviews rejecting calls for further action.
“What we won’t do is engage in reckless and job-destroying and economy-crunching targets which are being sought,” he told Channel 9, responding to calls for more climate-friendly policies.
Morrison’s media blitz came as he sought to limit the political fallout from a much-criticized Hawaiian holiday — taken as fires destroyed an area the size of Belgium and unleashed toxic smoke into Australia’s major cities.
Conditions eased markedly on Monday, but authorities said in the last few days almost 200 homes have been damaged by fires in South Australia and New South Wales.
Authorities said that little was left of the small town of Balmoral, southwest of Sydney, where 67-year-old artist Steve Harrison told public broadcaster ABC he had been forced to weather the fire in a makeshift kiln.
“I ran to my ute but my garden was already on fire, the driveway was on fire, the road was on fire so I couldn’t evacuate,” he said. “The day before I had actually built myself a small kiln down the back — a coffin-sized kiln — just big enough for me to crawl inside.”
“I was in there for half an hour while the firestorm went over. It was huge, just glowing orange-red everywhere. Just scary. I was terrified.”
Bush fires occur frequently in Australia, but scientists say several weather phenomena have come together to make this spring-summer season among the worst on record.
Record-low rainfall, record-high temperatures and strong winds have made the situation more combustible, and according to scientists, are influenced by climate change.
Morrison has insisted Australia will meet its 2030 emissions targets.
“I’m going to maintain the course of responsible management, responsibly addressing the changes of climate change and responsibly ensuring that we can grow our economy in what is a very tough climate at the moment,” Morisson told the Seven Network.
Australia committed at the 2015 U.N. climate summit to reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
However, environmental activists say those targets are not nearly enough to help the world keep global warming to safe levels, and that far deeper cuts are needed.
Morrison’s government has further been criticized for seeking to achieve its 2030 targets by counting credits under a complicated global accounting method, rather than through new reductions.
While Australia’s national carbon emissions are low compared with major polluters, its fossil fuel exports — mostly coal — account for an estimated 7 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.
The opposition leader, Labor’s Anthony Albanese, pilloried Morrison’s “stubbornness” in refusing “to change course.”
“Clearly, this is not business-as-usual. But Mr. Morrison is not listening,” Albanese said.
“People are scared of what is going on around them. And if Mr. Morrison thinks that there’s nothing to see here, it’s because he can’t see through the smoke and haze that’s been created by these bush fires.”