“The whole town is on fire! Head for the beaches!”
But wait… aren’t those fireworks over Sydney Harbour Bridge?
Such are the mixed signals as Australia proves, once more, that living at the front line of climate change—i.e., half the place seems to be on fire—hasn’t taught its politicians anything.
In Mallacoota, a coastal resort in southeastern Australia, the fires came in the night, and 4,000 people fled for safety to the beach. Volunteer firefighters formed a last line of defense. At 8 a.m., one resident said, “It should have been daylight but it was black like midnight and we could hear the fire roaring… we were terrified for our lives.” Ash was raining on the beach.
At the same time the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, was fielding calls to cancel one of the city’s most famous events, the New Year’s Eve firework display launched from Sydney Harbour Bridge. Bush fires were ringing the city to the west, casting a pall in the sky, but she refused: The display would “give hope to people at a terrible time.”
A look at the current fire map shows the whole continent of Australia ringed with flame. This is the driest continent on earth, and it is now being cooked by global warming. After the driest spring on record it has had the hottest day, with average highs across the whole country above 107 degrees.
As the apocalypse closed in on Mallacoota, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, was AWOL: At first his office denied he was on holiday in Hawaii, but when a picture emerged of him there, drinking beer with tourists on a beach, he was forced to head back home.
In New South Wales, the state that includes Sydney, nine million acres have been burned up since November and 900 homes destroyed.
As well as being hot and dry, much of Australia is also largely flat. Alice Springs, a legendary town in the interior, is an exception, at 1,800 feet above sea level. Last week the temperature there reached 113 degrees. “That’s pretty insane,” said Dr. Andrew Watkins, head of long-range forecasting at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
Australia’s politicians seem to have no learning curve. Morrison, declaring that this was no time to discuss climate policy, said, “We have been through these terrible disasters before, and we have come through the other side.”
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said climate concerns were being stoked by “raving inner-city lefties.”
Australia remains heavily committed to coal-fired power stations and has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission rates.
In fact, the 2020 World Climate Change Performance Index, just released, ranks Australia last of the 57 countries it monitors for their climate policies and said that it was actually going backwards under Morrison’s Conservative government. But the opposition Labour party has also been attacked for pro-coal policies.
There is a bone-headed zealotry to climate denial in Australia. Morrison has even gone so far as suggesting that environmental protest groups should be outlawed if they stage demonstrations.
Nonetheless there have been no Trump-style purges of scientists from government departments. Dr. Watkins, the long range forecaster, has explained that a warming of the atmosphere over Antarctica is exacerbating the Australian droughts: “There is nothing left to evaporatively cool the air.”
At the same time, Australia is actually planning increases in fossil fuel production that would mean that by 2030 Australia, with 0.3 percent of the global population, will be responsible for 13 percent of globally generated greenhouse gases.
One of the people pushing this program is Gina Rinehart, the 65-year-old chair of a mining and extraction conglomerate with a net worth of $14.8 billion.
With her coal mines producing more than 60 million tons a year, Rinehart has opposed carbon pollution taxes and has sponsored trips to Australia by climate change denier Christopher Monckton, a right wing British politician who is also an advocate for quack cures for multiple sclerosis, herpes, and flu.
In 2012 Rinehart complained that Australia’s workforce was not competitive enough and cited African workers as a shining example: “Africans want to work and are willing to work for less than two dollars a day. Such statistics make me worry for this country’s future.”
Julia Gillard, who was then prime minister, responded: “It’s not the Australian way to toss people two dollars and then ask them to work for a day.”
The magnetic physical beauty of Australia is based, literally, on its fragility. The continent lives very close to the fine line between supportable life and extinction.
When you drive into the outback, as I have done, and into the endless flatness of red desert, and eventually come to a small road town, it’s evident that this outpost of life can have no physical roots: It sits directly and rudely on the earth’s crust.
There is something gloriously defiant in the apparition, like a mirage that has suddenly become solid. A tin-roofed motel, a bar, a small school house, a few hundred people making a barely viable but happy life—and, usually, boasting one incongruous, well irrigated little piece of England, a soft, green cricket pitch.
This is in miniature a diagram of how the whole country was built, from Sydney to Alice Springs—creating a fragile hold on a knowingly precarious basis. To endure, it needed a compact between the settlers and the hard face of nature. This was understood by the original inhabitants. Aboriginal culture worked out its own successful model of sustainable life.
But no such compact has been made or even suggested by Australia’s current political and industrial axis. There is something unique at work here, an ingrained cowboy hubris that is depressing to see—a kind of resurgent warrior philistinism in denial of irrefutable science.
Nobody has better defined this species than the great Australian satirist Barry Humphries. No, not his best-known creation, the terrifying, ball-breaking matriarch Dame Edna Everage.
I’m talking about the Honorable Les Patterson, the grandly titled Australian cultural attaché to the Court of St. James, whose job specification is to promote Australia as a place “with more culture than a penicillin factory” and as a “thinking organism.” In this bibulous vulgarian, leering with unbridled testosterone and misogyny, Humphries identifies and impersonates a type—not a stereotype—that lives on in the country’s political class.
Nonetheless it would be an act of gross hypocrisy to see their behavior only as an Australian aberration. The country’s obtuse political leaders set an example that other reactionary regimes in countries as varied as Brazil and Poland are all too ready to emulate as they, too, protect their fossil fuel interests.
And then, of course, there is us. Our continent has far greater ecological resilience than Australia, but our stewardship of it is just as careless as theirs. Under Trump’s calculated demolition of science-based regulations, America is on the same path to the apocalypse. It’s simply happening a lot more slowly.