Australia’s bushfire season begins early and forcefully as its politicians differ over climate change

Lauren Williams, Special to USA TODAY

Published 3: 00 AM EST Nov 15, 2019

SYDNEY — An unprecedented bushfire season devastating Australia’s eastern states has also ignited a fierce debate about the country’s response to climate change.

Over one million hectares of land have been razed in the Sydney state of New South Wales at the start of this year’s fire season alone. Four people are dead and at least 300 homes have been destroyed in NSW and Queensland. 

But with weather warnings repeatedly raised to “catastrophic” levels for over a week now, politicians on the left and right of Australia’s political divide have traded blows over the role of climate change in causing the fires, as well as the country’s response and preparedness for weather emergencies. Left-leaning political figures blame the government for lacking a climate plan, while the conservative government is doubling down on its commitment to the coal industry.

Temperatures soared up to 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of NSW and Queensland Tuesday and Wednesday, which along with gusty winds, fueled over 120 separate fires along an 800-kilometer stretch of land between the cities of Sydney and Brisbane. The NSW premier declared a week-long state of emergency and over 500 schools closed for a red alert day Tuesday. An eerie, red-tinged haze blanketed the Sydney skyline through the week, prompting health warnings from authorities.

A cool change Thursday brought little relief, and residents were bracing for a return to very hot conditions and severe weather warnings Friday.

Fire chiefs, mayors and meteorologists have been quick to blame climate change for the extreme conditions, pointing to the fact that Australia’s fire season is becoming longer and more intense.

Greg Mullins, the former head of Fire and Rescue in NSW, led a coalition of fire chiefs who wrote to the prime minister in May warning of a devastating bushfire season and requesting an urgent meeting to discuss future plans. He said a resource-sharing arrangement with California in the United States is now at risk of failing in both Australia and the U.S. as the two countries’ extended fire seasons overlap. Describing himself as “frightened”, Mullins told local media his meeting request was fobbed off by the prime minister.

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Regional mayors whose communities have been ravaged by fires have also criticized the government’s failure to link fires to climate change and adequately prepare for the firey future.

“What we have been hearing the climate experts saying for 20 years is now a reality,” said Dominic King, the mayor of Bellingen on the NSW mid-north coast, where a 4840-hectare, out of control fire has been raging for over a week.

But as the massive fires blaze, the political point-scoring has only intensified.

A far-left Greens Party MP Adam Brandt effectively accused the Prime Minister Scott Morrison of personal responsibility for deaths in the fires.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack responded angrily, labeling climate activists “inner-city raving lunatics,” telling a leading morning radio program that those affected by bushfires “don’t need the ravings of some pure enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time when they are trying to save their homes.”

May’s federal election was predicted to be Australia’s climate change election. But despite polls showing more Australians than ever supporting action on climate change, voters opted instead overwhelmingly for mining jobs and lower taxes. 

The opposition Labor Party failed to win over the electorate with its more ambitious climate emissions reductions scheme. The conservative Liberal-National Party coalition was reelected with limited to no commitment to take action on climate change. 

Australia is highly dependent on its primary coal exports to China. Morrison is famous for bringing a piece of coal into Parliament to signify his commitment to the coal industry.

Morrison says Australia is doing its part to tackle climate change by agreeing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2030 as part of the Paris climate agreement. Morrison’s government says it’s on track to achieve this, but data shows emissions have gone up every year for the last five years, according to a July 2019 report by the Australia Institute. 

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After some 300,000 school children rallied against inaction on climate change inaction, as part of protests across the globe in September and climate activists targeted businesses associated with mining companies, Morrison threatened harsh new penalties to outlaw protests and boycotts targeting the mining industry that he termed “indulgent and selfish,” at a speech to the Queensland Resources Council.

Amanda McKenzie, CEO of Australia’s Climate Council — an independent body comprised of science, health, renewable energy and policy experts, said the current fires were “a wake-up call for the government”.

“The government has been repeatedly warned and the evidence is all around us… yet there has been a persistent failure to act,” she said.

Australia’s eastern states have faced a crippling and extended drought this past year. Scientists and regional mayors say changing weather patterns, combined with gusty winds, drought, and high temperatures, are a recipe for disaster.

Professor Paul Read, bushfire expert at Monash University, said the fires were unprecedented in terms of size, location, but also the timing.

“This season started a whole five months earlier than what we usually see,” he said.

“We have had a record-breaking drought and bushfires have occurred in places that are very dry… but it’s also just hotter,” he also said.

“These fires are very, very hot. They are creating their own internal weather systems,” Read added.

“We used to be known as a place that was always green. But this has been dry through winter, spring and now coming into summer,” said Bellingen Mayor Dominic King in NSW.

King added: “That’s impacting the vegetation. The trees are under stress and dropping leaves and that’s just fuel on the ground. Everything is just crispy. We are seeing areas burn that never burned before.”

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On Thursday evening, Claire Whinfield attended a meeting in her local community of St. Albans on the Hawkesbury River, about two hours north of Sydney, to discuss plans to contain the huge 82,250- hectare Mt Gosper fire.

“It’s been very emotional but everyone is chipping in,” she said.

“I’ve watered the garden, filled the gutters and we’ve mowed all the grass so there’s no fuel for it,” she added,  “We’ve packed the car in case we have to leave in a hurry – photos, paperwork, clothing and a bit of art. It’s all been in a heap in the back of the car for three days.”

Sara Duddy, 37, runs a boutique guesthouse at the Nightscap National Park in the Byron Bay Hinterland, about three hours south of Brisbane.

“It’s been really stressful and I haven’t slept in a week,” she said, adding “Everyone is really angry. Angry at inaction and politics when the region is burning.”

She said it felt as though the government was playing stubborn politics.

“What harm would there be in adopting a zero-emissions economy? We used to be leaders in the World. Everyone – the scientists, the kids, the firefighters are all saying the same thing. Just stop being led around by the nose by the fossil fuel companies.”

“The problem is the current coaliton is backing the wrong players. It’s like after they thought winning the election gave them a mandate to do less and less about serious risks we’re facing.”

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