By Eve Sinton
Scores of fires, unprecedented in their ferocity and unexpected at this time of year, engulfed Australia in recent weeks.
As the blazes raged out of control, they ignited a war of words over the country’s climate policy. Meanwhile, former emergency services leaders revealed they had been trying to warn Prime Minister Scott Morrison about climate change-driven fire risks for months.
Morrison has been ignoring the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action’s requests to meet since April.
Fires have incinerated over 1,650,000 hectares, taken at least four lives and destroyed around 500 homes. The toll to wildlife and domestic livestock is incalculable.
The situation will continue through summer, with no rain relief in sight.
Despite Australia’s long history of bushfires, scientists and emergency personnel are unanimous in describing the scale of the emergency as unprecedented, and driven by global heating.
PM won’t mention climate change
The Prime Minister’s ‘thoughts and prayers but let’s not talk about the climate’ reaction drew comparisons with the National Rifle Association’s playbook responses to gun deaths in the USA.
Politicians attacked each other’s words. A selection of quotes appears below.
Ironically, National Party members made some of the most scathing remarks about people concerned over climate change, even as their own rural constituents were the most hard-hit. According to the Nats, only bloody inner-city lunatics believe the fires had anything to do with global heating.
A more constructive approach was provided by the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action’s Greg Mullins, former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner and a Climate Councillor.
Mullins has toured devastating Californian fires to learn lessons for Australia’s worsening bushfire risk.
He said that “the most fire-prone parts of the planet are burning more and more and it is going to be harder to fight these fires.”
“We are coming into what I think is the most dangerous build-up to a fire season that I’ve seen since 1994 and it is atrocious that our national government doesn’t recognise that there is a disaster headed their way.
“Late-season fires are burning in California, alongside early-season fires across much of Australia – and this overlap is deeply worrying,” said Mullins.
All large firefighting planes and helicopters used in Australia, except one owned by New South Wales, are leased from North America.
“With Australia and California burning at the same time, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to lease vital personnel and equipment from the United States,” he said.
Mullins is a founding member of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, a coalition of emergency leaders from around the country calling for stronger action on climate change.
“We are seeing the impacts of intensifying climate change in Australia now. Bushfire seasons are intensifying, starting earlier and lasting longer than ever before, and we need to take this seriously,” said the Climate Council’s CEO Amanda McKenzie.
“California has experienced devastating fires year in, year out with thousands of homes lost. Without efforts to both tackle climate change and manage escalating fire danger, Australian fires are getting riskier,” she said.
“The Federal Government is failing Australians on climate and failing to secure Australians a safe future,” said McKenzie.
“The Federal Government must listen to emergency leaders and stop ignoring the risk to communities and emergency services personnel. We need urgent emissions reductions, and a coordinated national effort on coping with worsening extreme weather disasters,” said Mullins.
War of words
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack (National):
[Climate change concerns are generated by] “all those … inner-city raving lunatics. [People] don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes
Barnaby Joyce (National):
“I acknowledge that the two people who died were most likely people who voted for the Green party, so I am not going to start attacking them. That’s the last thing I want to do.” Later claiming his remarks had been misinterpreted, Joyce said he wanted to “punch the fucking lights out” of people who criticised the statement.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (Liberal):
Said drought had contributed to the conditions when asked about the link between climate change and the bushfires, “But I don’t think it’s appropriate to get into a political argument as to what the causes are at this stage.”
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro (National):
‘‘For any bloody greenie or lefty out there who wants to talk about climate change … when communities in the next 48 hours might lose more lives. If this is the time people want to talk about climate change, they are a bloody disgrace.’’
MP Adam Bandt, (Greens):
“I think the world needs to shift away from coal and Australia, as the sixth largest polluter when you take into account how much how much we export, has to take a leading role. If you continue digging up coal and burning it, then this kind of catastrophe is going to become more likely, and the question is: is that what we want?”
Senator Jordon Steele-John (Greens):
Speaking in the Senate – “How dare any of you suggest that in this moment at this time it is appropriate to be prosecuting a piece of legislation with the aim of propping up coal. You are no better than a bunch of arsonists – borderline arsonists – and you should be ashamed.”
Mayor of Glen Innes Severn Council Carol Sparks:
“We are so impacted by drought and the lack of rain. It’s climate change, there’s no doubt about it. The whole of the country is going to be affected. We need to take a serious look at our future.”