Australia: A lack of leadership as nation burns

Welcome to hell on earth, said The Australian in an editorial. After three years of drought and record temperatures, Australia has exploded into flames in the worst bushfire season in living memory. At least 24 people have been killed by the blazes, which began in September and have consumed some 15 million acres—more than triple the area destroyed by the 2018 California wildfires. With at least 1,300 homes reduced to cinders and thousands of people displaced, the government last week took the unprecedented step of calling up 3,000 military reservists to help battle the flames and conduct evacuations. Two naval vessels rescued 1,000 locals and vacationers stranded on a beach for days as fire encircled the remote coastal town of Mallacoota—the largest peacetime maritime evacuation in Australia’s history. The “selfless dedication and herculean work” of fire crews—many of whom are volunteers—police, medics, and military personnel in the face of this inferno have been “little short of miraculous.” But the Australian summer still has months to go, and much more will be demanded of our exhausted emergency service workers.

As Australia burns, conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison “ducks and weaves,” said David Crowe in The Sydney Morning Herald. He had to be shamed into cutting short his pre-Christmas vacation in Hawaii to return for the funerals of two volunteer firefighters, and he has refused to order an emergency meeting of federal and state leaders to coordinate the national response. When opposition center-left Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese suggested compensation for volunteer firefighters, “Morrison was dismissive at first,” but later announced one-off payments of up to $4,200. With all this dithering, it’s unsurprising that Morrison has been jeered and booed when he’s visited scorched towns.

The “elephant in the room is climate change,” said Ellen Whinnett in the Courier-Mail. Morrison refuses to consider weaning the economy from dependence on fossil fuels, saying that as the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas, Australia simply can’t afford to shutter those industries. It’s not just Morrison’s Liberals who are struggling with climate change—no Australian party has a coherent response to the conundrum. Australia produces less than 2 percent of global emissions, so even if we went to zero we wouldn’t save the planet. Yet as a wealthy country, we should be “showing leadership.”

“What’s unfolding right now is really just a taste of the new normal,” said Australian climate scientist Joëlle Gergis in The Guardian.com. I fear that we’ve reached a tipping point in humancaused climate change and that “weather conditions considered extreme by today’s standards will seem sedate in the future.” We urgently need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a rapidly destabilizing world. “There genuinely is no more time to waste. We must act as though our home is on fire—because it is.”