The satellite images are at once mesmerizing and horrifying. A vast arc of fire blazes across the rim of the land; a cone of heat encases a whole continent; a veil of smoke shrouds the ocean and will soon circle the globe. This season’s catastrophic bush fires in Australia have scorched roughly 20 million acres of the country, killed at least 25 people and, according to some staggering estimates, led to the death of a billion animals.
Videos of singed kangaroos and parched koalas prompted an outpouring of grief on social media. Where the fires have been quelled, a blackened desolation remains, with thousands of homes lost and communities uprooted. Survivors and eyewitnesses spoke of an apocalyptic orange sky and fierce winds that meant the roaring of the blaze was often heard before it was seen. So extreme were the conditions — the country experienced a record heat wave, on top of three years of devastating drought — that banks of clouds created by the flames have generated their own fire-driven thunderstorms.
There’s a political storm brewing in Australia, as well. In its epicenter is conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has been criticized not just for his initial lax handling of the crisis — he was on holiday in Hawaii as his nation burned — but, more importantly, for his broader resistance to political measures aimed at mitigating climate change. Morrison remains infamous for a stunt he pulled in 2017, when, as Australia’s treasurer, he showed up to a session of Parliament brandishing a lump of coal and a message to his colleagues not to be “scared” by fossil fuels.
Morrison came to power in 2018 in an internal party coup that unseated then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose attempts to set targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions were resisted by rivals within the right-wing Liberal Party. Under his watch, Australia stopped payments to the Green Climate Fund, the U.N.-backed mechanism that assists developing countries hit by climate disaster. When the United Nations chaired a climate meeting in September in New York, Morrison skipped the session.
And in last month’s major climate conference in Madrid, Morrison’s government came under particular criticism for thwarting collective efforts to set meaningful emissions targets.
The international community has taken note. A report published last month by a group of think tanks that ranked 57 countries on their national climate action policies placed Australia sixth from bottom. A separate study in November ranked Australia as third-worst among the Group of 20 nations. Though Australia just produces a bit more than 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, it’s the world’s biggest exporter of coal, whose use is a major factor in the warming of the planet. The bush fires alone have emitted some 350 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since last September.
In the midst of the crisis, Morrison has offered mostly a tepid brand of climate denialism, pointing to a long history of seasonal fires. “They are natural disasters,” he told reporters last week. “They wreak this sort of havoc when they affect our country, and they have for a very long time.”
In comments to Reuters on Tuesday, Angus Taylor, Morrison’s emissions reduction minister, waved away criticism over policy and said the “bush fires are a time when communities must unite, not divide.” Allies elsewhere cautioned against policies that could negatively impact Australian business.
Right-wing media have also pointed to reports of dozens of arsonists contributing to the blaze as supposed evidence that the current catastrophe is not entirely linked to climate change.
The scientific consensus is pretty clear, though. In an interview for PBS with Christiane Amanpour, leading Australian climate scientist Tim Flannery said the current situation was “part of the long-term trajectory of climate change,” and it’s “conspired together with a windy season to produce these horrific fire conditions.” He pointed to 12 reports his own organization produced warning the Australian government of the mounting effects of climate change on the country.
“Even without human help, Earth can be at times inhospitable,” noted an editorial in The Washington Post. “All the more reason to avoid priming the planet for worse — extreme weather, intense heat waves, more drought, more flooding, rising seas, species die-offs, disease proliferation, and more foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences. Australia, which has profited off fossil fuel extraction and use, has a responsibility to help lead the world.”
But Morrison and his ilk have long resisted meaningful climate action or schemes that would raise the cost of energy. This current round of fires may force a new reckoning.
“Debate over climate — whether it is changing, and if so what to do about it — has become a culture wars issue over the years to the point where it has proved to be a useful political device for parties of the right,” wrote columnist Tony Walker in the Sydney Morning Herald. But, he noted, “the ground is shifting politically,” with more and more Australians recognizing the urgency of the environmental threat they face.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.