A Shift in Australian Politics Amidst the Destruction of the Bushfires

From Devastation to Political Awakening

In Nov. 2019, the Australian government declared a state of emergency after dozens of fires erupted in New South Wales, Australia, which started in early September. The flames spread rapidly, eventually burning through nearly 27 million acres of bush, forests, and parks. At least 33 people — including four firefighters — were killed, and over 3,000 homes were either damaged or permanently destroyed. Nearly a quarter of a million people evacuated the entirety of southeast Australia in the wake of the deadly bushfires. Fortunately, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service announced the bushfires had been controlled or extinguished in each state, with the help of heavy rain.

“Bushfires rage through Australia, Firefighters try to put out a bushfire in Woodford on Nov. 8” cnn.com

Massive quantities of endemic Australian wildlife have either faced direct mortality or loss of habitat as a result of the fires. More than one billionmammals, birds, and reptiles have lost their lives in the blazes. The animals that have survived a lack of food and shelter and are now vulnerable to invasive species of feral animals. For Australia’s unique ecosystems, this tragic loss is devastating.

Animal rescuer Marcus Fillinger carries a burned kangaroo on Feb. 4 in Peak View, Australia, Photo from cnn.com

The lack of rainfall is a direct consequence of global warming and climate breakdown. Dry and brittle trees burned much faster than they would have in their normal wetter conditions. Rivers have stopped flowing, and their aquatic species, including the platypus, have been removed from what used to be populated areas. Ash and sediments have polluted these waters, depleting their quality and livability. Some ecosystems, like eucalyptus forests, are prone to fires and will come back, but other ancient woodlands, such as the Gondwana Rainforest, are now facing extinction.

The tragedy in Australia has been mislabeled as a climate emergency when, in fact, the bushfires exemplify a climate crisis. While an emergency suggests a short term issue with an immediate solution, the climate crisis has been predicted for decades. Scientists have reached a consensus and created viable solutions — all affordable and scalable, but lacking supportive environmental politics.

In January, The Australian National University (contracted with the Social Research Centre) surveyed over 3,000 Australians about a range of environmental issues following the country’s recent bushfires. According to the nationally representative poll, the environment has become an increasingly significant concern for more than half of Australia’s voter population.

72 percent of Australians said global warming would affect them, and more than 80 percent said they were affected by the nation’s unprecedented bushfires. The Australian Election Study found that crises, as such, have the potential to spark political concern among voters. In the past few decades, Australia has seen a decline in the confidence of those in power. Scott Morrison, of the liberal party, has been Prime Minister since Aug. 2018. He is a religious and social conservative with a heavy focus on economics and strict immigration policy. In the last year, his parliament prioritized income tax cuts, institutional discrimination, and border protection. Many reformshave been introduced and never passed. This lack of initiative has Australians worried.

However, public trust in institutions, such as firefighting services, has remained stable over the last year. In the face of tragedy, Australian citizens unified together to protect one another and the surrounding nature. Over 90 percent of the fires from this season were put out by volunteer firefighters, and eleven of them lost their lives defending their homes. Still, the fight is not over. On Friday, Jan. 10, thousands of climate activists marched in 9 major cities in Australia as apart of a global climate movement, ‘Fridays for the Future.’ The protests were organized by national student organizations, including Uni Students for Climate Justice, and over 50,000 people were in attendance.

Graphic by ANUPoll

Protest continue to take place on the streets of Syndey and Melbourne; demonstrators call for an end to fossil fuel subsidies while others demand that Prime Minister Morrison leave the office for his poor administration and position on climate change. Morrison has acknowledged the anxiety he provoked in Australian citizens and apologized for going on vacation to Hawaii during the fires. “When you make a promise to your kids, you try and keep it. But I understand as Prime Minister; you have other responsibilities. And I accept that, and the criticism.” stated Morrison. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels, yet the country has ignored the call to increase climate action. As a result, the country’s emissions continue to rise, despite government denial of such.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, 2020. Photo from commondreams.org

Over the last year, the Australian government dismissed the findings of the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming and defunded the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and got rid of the proposed National Energy Guarantee (NEG). The GCF is the largest global fund to developing countries seeking to respond to climate change. Its primary goals are to keep the average global temperature below 2 degrees Celcius and channel climate finance into developing countries. The NEG aims to deliver cheaper and more reliable power while lowering carbon emissions and reducing power bill costs. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull advocated for the policy in 2018, but Labor said NEG’s emission target was too low. Today, neither program, GCF or NEG, has been funded.

Currently, Australia’s Paris Agreement target is a 26–28 percent decrease underneath 2005 levels by 2030. With current policies, total emissions anticipate being only 14–16 percent beneath 2005 levels by 2030. Morrison ignores this fact and will regularly state that Australia will meet its target in the “near future.”

In 2012, Australia’s Labor Government, under prime minister Jula Gillard, introduced a carbon tax that would help the country reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 1.4 percent in two years. To offset the impact of the tax, the Labor government reduced income taxes and increased welfare payments. However radical, Labor felt this was necessary considering the country has one of the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world. Still, the tax was widely unpopular with the newly elected government and repealed in 2014. Since then, Australia has not seen bipartisan political support for climate action, and carbon price scaremongering continues to divert voters from aligning with a carbon tax plan.

Photo by jacobinmag.com

When asked at a press conference in December, “What is your government doing to plan for the long term economic and environmental impacts of climate change?” Scott Morrison replied, “We have made commitments to reduce our admissions because that is what a responsible country does.” He stated that the government’s climate targets would “meet and beat” emission reduction targets, without addressing how this is possible.

Morrison also mentioned the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, for his “additional measures” being put in place to protect the environment. These measures, however, were not further detailed. Prime Minister Morrison has repeatedly stated that his emission reduction policies will both reduce environmental hazards and ensure job security for the country. Unfortunately, Australia’s executive branch continually fails to deliver on its promises for environmental regulations and protections.

In January, Morrison announced a plan that would spend 1.4 billion dollars in federal aid on rebuilding infrastructure struck by fires. Also, volunteer firefighters battling blazes for more than ten days will receive compensated pay and extra leave, and $690 cash payments are available to those who have lost homes or loved ones in the fires.

Morrison also said he would take a proposal to establish a Bushfire Royal Commission into Cabinet. The commission will is tasked with creating a plan to enhance the federal government’s preparedness, recovery, and resilience in the case of future natural disasters. It will also clarify the degree to which the government is entitled to respond to natural disasters by establishing a National Bushfire Recovery Agency and allocating federal aid to rebuilding communities.

In response, Oxfam Australia’s Chief Executive Lyn Morgain stated she was “disappointed” that the commission was not asked to look into Australia’s contribution to the global climate crisis. Although the Royal Commission could be a step in the right direction, some question its value, since past climate plans have been expensive, rushed, and ineffective. Regardless, his proposal could be the first time Australians may see a change in the coalition’s climate policy since Morrison took office.

Conversations around the environmental change in Australia have become extremely polarized. This disagreement poses a challenge to leaders who are now responsible for developing and implementing solutions. The conversation in Australia will have to see a fundamental bipartisan shift before the country can see direct climate action in the next year. However, there is hope, Australian are outraged about their government’s negligent behavior, and future policy will address their concerns, whether it be immediate government recovery funding or global climate policy reform.

Jenny Evans via Getty Images, from huffingtonpost.com