The worst fires in Australia’s history have delivered a climate-change lesson its leaders tried to ignore and cast a shadow over the nation’s economy. So what comes next?
Although homes and land close to Leaver’s house burnt, his didn’t. That was partly good luck and partly design. Leaver, a former forester and one of Australia’s top conservation administrators – last year made a member of the Order of Australia for his life’s work – dreaded this summer because he knew what was coming.
“The big disaster this time was the drought,” he tells the Listener, gazing through the smoke haze from his dining table across a vast, bone-dry eucalypt forest that didn’t burn in the New Year’s inferno that hit Australia’s south-east but still might.
“So, you had these forests drying out for the past two or three years … that’s what’s happened,” says Leaver. “I was looking at the extended drought and it was just clear to me with my forestry background that it was going to be very severe because all the fuels were dried out.”
After warning his closest neighbours in the rural hamlet of Coolagolite, Leaver spent months doing all he could to fireproof his own home. It has roof and perimeter sprinkler systems rigged up to a full 44,000-litre water tank. All around his property’s edges, Leaver cleared away dried timber and leaves – anything flammable. He moved his woodpile further off. And just in case all else failed, he stacked containers of firefighting gel at his front door, ready to ward off fire from whatever might be his last line of defence.
Leaver’s fears, we now know, were entirely justified. An area of Australia larger than Scotland has burnt, more than two dozen people have died – including at least five firefighters – and more than 2000 homes have burnt down since the largest fires in the nation’s history began in September.
Ecologists estimate a billion wild animals have been destroyed in New South Wales. Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley believes koala losses alone are so high that they will need to be declared endangered, at least in some parts of the country.
The effect has not been confined to Australia. The smoke blew more than 2000km to New Zealand, coating the South Island glaciers in dust and ash. A faint smoke cloud even travelled more than 12,000km to the heights of South America. Australia’s fires have pumped about 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further fuelling the climate change that’s already intensifying the nation’s blazes.
That’s more than the combined annual emissions of the 116 lowest-emitting countries. It is nine times the amount produced in California’s record-setting 2018 fire season. It also adds up to about three-quarters of Australia’s greenhouse-gas emissions in 2019.
Deaf, blind and holidaying
If Leaver saw the catastrophe unfolding months ago, how was the Australian Government so spectacularly unprepared and Prime Minister Scott Morrison so at ease that he took off on holiday to Hawaii as the fires built in the days before Christmas? Says Leaver, a former head of South Australia’s national parks and of Australia’s Heritage Commission: “You very quickly get into the debates of climate change. In Australia these are absolutely toxic. The conservative side of politics has grimly refused, because of the importance of the fossil-fuel industry to the Australian economy and the way our politics is funded through donations … so when they should have been listening, they weren’t. They were tone-deaf to the thing.”
Morrison still appeared deaf, if not also a little blind, even after he cut short his holiday to return to Australia as the fires grew and two firefighters lost their lives a few days before Christmas. As it happened, this writer was aboard an aircraft minutes behind the Prime Minister’s as he flew into Sydney. The view from the cabin was an infinity of silvery wood smoke, so thick it blurred the aircraft’s wing tips. At 3600m, the smell of the burning forests filled the cabin as the pilots descended.
Yet Morrison was testy upon his return, telling a Sydney radio host he wasn’t needed at home to fight fires: “That’s the brave people who … are doing that job.”
As temperatures soared above 40°C across Australia’s south-east on New Year’s Eve, fires burst out from northern New South Wales and along a 1000km stretch south to Mallacoota, the packed Victorian beachside holiday town.
The arresting images of hundreds of terrified men, women and children huddled together on the sand, in the water and aboard small boats as monstrous fires advanced, turning daylight into a red night, evoked the opening passages of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, portraying a post-apocalyptic world: “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more grey each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”
In Cobargo, 380km south of Sydney, the fires hit the town of 700 at dawn. By then, many had fled, driving out through flaming forested roads, but others, believing the solid, 200-year-old buildings on the main street would not burn, stayed on. When his phone rang at four minutes past midnight, John Walters, 67, the town’s volunteer fire brigade president, jerked open his door and looked for the fire he’d been warned was storming through the forests to the north.
There were no flames, only a preternatural silence. And a strange, intense heat.
“It was deathly still here in town. There was not a breath of air. It was so very hot, it was so unnaturally hot for midnight,” he recalls of the first minutes of New Year’s Eve.
Five miles west, in her proud cottage deep in eucalypt forest and dairy-farm country, Louise Brown, 66, was roused by the restless young couple staying in the Airbnb cabin on her property. All night, the pair had been watching the towering red glow in the north-west sky. Now, flames were dancing across the hilltops.
“They had been sitting on the verandah watching it, and they decided it was time to hightail it. And, if they hadn’t woken me up …,” says Brown, one of five female partners in Cobargo’s small second-hand bookshop. Her voice trails off. Within a few hours, her home would be gone.
Brown thought she’d be safe in the town, sheltering within Cobargo’s old brick and stone shops that had survived 200 years of bushfires. At 1.30am, she opened the bookshop and made pots of tea and plates of sliced watermelon for the fearful townspeople remaining. “Then there was this enormous rush of hot air, just a terrible roar. The sky lit up bright red to the north-west. The entire ridge overlooking the town was on fire. It literally just happened in seconds,” she says, recalling the moment she knew Cobargo would burn.
Nearly 90 houses, shops and businesses went up – more than a quarter of the town’s buildings. Soon after dawn, the main street was a mass of smoking, twisted iron and brick piles. People still in town were shattered. The flames were too much for the 16 volunteer firefighters who were that night manning the town’s four fire trucks.
“It was overwhelming. There were houses that we just couldn’t save and we had to withdraw and try to save the town centre,” Walters later recalled of his brigade’s efforts.
An old, forgotten town many Australians had never heard of was about to become the face of Australia’s bushfire crisis – when Morrison arrived two days later. He was forced to retreat after attempting to shake hands with angry locals, including a uniformed firefighter, who were in no mood to co-operate with what many thought was a photo opportunity devised by the Prime Minister’s minders.
“I’m only shaking your hand if you give more funding to our RFS [Rural Fire Service],” a 20-year-old expectant mother told Morrison as he grabbed her hand. “We need more help.” He walked away from her.
The firefighter Morrison approached remained limp when the PM extended his hand, telling him, “I don’t really want to shake your hand, mate.”
A handful of townspeople began to jeer him as the television cameras rolled. Minutes later, Morrison and his entourage left in a shiny white Volvo SUV.
How much Morrison has suffered as a result of his early handling of the crisis became clear mid-month when the Australian published its first opinion poll of the year. It showed his standing had taken a huge hit over the bushfires, dropping nine percentage points as preferred prime minister, from 48% to 39%, since early December. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese was at 43% – a stunning reversal of Morrison’s 14 percentage-point lead over the Labor leader in early December.
Often, a leader’s reaction to a crisis elevates him or her and defines their leadership. Think of former Australian prime minister John Howard’s handling of the 1996 Tasmanian massacre, in which 35 died, or Jacinda Ardern after last year’s Christchurch massacre.
Morrison ill-judged the nation’s anxiety over the fires. It may yet be his own Katrina moment: in August 2005, US President George Bush was also holidaying and took his time before visiting Florida and Louisiana, which had been in the path of Hurricane Katrina that claimed at least 1000 lives. When he did arrive, Bush inspected the devastation from a window seat aboard Air Force One. The official picture of the president looking down from above backfired badly. “That photo of me hovering over the damage suggested I was detached from the suffering on the ground,” Bush wrote later in his book Decision Points. “That was not how I felt. But once that impression was formed, I couldn’t change it.”
To spend time in Cobargo in the aftermath of the destruction is to learn something of the reasons for the anger. A surprising number of residents raise Morrison’s dismissal of a group of retired fire and emergency chiefs, who, in April and May, warned the
Government that a torrid fire season was approaching and that more firefighting resources – aircraft – were urgently required.
Morrison fobbed off their requests for a meeting, instead suggesting more junior ministers would be in touch. Essentially, nothing happened until the fires enlarged worryingly in November. Then, Morrison’s Minister for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management, David Littleproud, finally agreed to a December meeting with the concerned ex-fire chiefs.
Exasperated organiser Greg Mullins, a highly regarded former New South Wales Fire & Rescue Commissioner, said: “By that time, what we’d predicted earlier in the year had manifested. That something is on everybody’s TV screens at the moment. We saw it coming – we tried to warn the Government.”
The group of 23 former fire and emergency chiefs carried a message that many in the Government did not want to hear, saying in a letter to Morrison immediately after he won last May’s election: “Climate change is upon us, it’s perilous and we need to do more about it.”
Morrison has long been cagey and equivocal on the issue of climate change and what more Australia – the world’s largest exporter of coal and gas – can do to arrest it. It was Morrison who, as treasurer in February 2017, became the coal industry’s darling when he brandished a lump of the black stuff during parliamentary question time, telling the House: “This is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you.”
That year, Australia exported 202 million tonnes of thermal coal and 177 million tonnes of metallurgical coal with a combined value of A$54 billion. New Zealand’s dairy exports amount to less than a third of that sum.
But coal is the single biggest contributor to anthropogenic climate change. Coal-fired power generation is responsible for 30% of all energy-related CO2.
Last July, a report for the Australian Conservation Foundation concluded that Australia was one of the highest per capita CO2 emitters in the world. On a per capita basis, the country’s carbon footprint including exports surpasses China’s by a factor of nine, the US by a factor of four and India by a factor of 37.
But in Australia, coal remains king. Even Morrison’s Opposition, the Labor Party, remains beholden to the mine companies and their employees – more so after doing so poorly in coal-mining regions in last year’s general election. While the fires were accelerating in mid-December, Labor leader Albanese toured coal country to express his support for the industry and its exports.
Even after the fires broke out, Morrison railed against more ambitious emission-reduction targets: “We don’t want job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals, which won’t change the fact that there have been bushfires or anything like that in Australia,” he told a Sydney radio station.
Energy and climate policy has long been lethal to Australian leaders and governments; it was a big factor in Julia Gillard’s toppling of her Labor Party colleague Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2010. She took over by promising an emissions-trading scheme – but Labor was ousted from power in 2013 by Tony Abbott, who campaigned against the plan. The sacking of Abbott’s successor, Malcolm Turnbull (again, by his own colleagues), in 2018 was precipitated by a bitter internal row over Turnbull’s intention to pass laws to further rein in greenhouse-gas emissions.
For now, Morrison is steadfastly refusing to set more ambitious targets for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, insisting that the Government will “meet and beat” its Paris Agreement target of reducing emissions by 26-28% compared with 2005 levels by 2030. But this is being achieved by an accounting trick that uses “carry-over” credits from the former Kyoto Protocol on climate change to meet the more recent Paris targets. Using carry-over credits would nearly halve the emissions reductions Australia needs to find.
Turnbull, now out of Parliament but still in public life, is urging that Morrison not “waste” the bushfires crisis, but instead use it to set higher targets for cuts to emissions and move more rapidly to renewable energy sources.
“But above all, we have to face this fact,” the former prime minister wrote in the Guardian last week. “Coal is on the way out. It is, as we are seeing today, a matter of life and death. Whether we like it or not, demand for our export coal is going to decline and expire.”
But coal is not dead yet – at least, not in the eyes of Australia’s current leaders. The country’s largest coal mine, planned by Indian multinational Adani in central Queensland, secured environmental approval from the state government last June (it already had federal government approval). The Carmichael mine is slated to produce 2.3 billion tonnes over 60 years – 60 million tonnes a year at peak. Townsville’s Labor mayor Jenny Hill is among those promoting the development for its potential to boost jobs in Far North Queensland’s biggest city, where unemployment has risen to 13% since the mining downturn.
The state government has granted Adani a 60-year licence to take groundwater, which, critics say, will deplete the Great Artesian Basin – the sole water source for much of rural Queensland. Environmentalists say waste water from the mine will pollute rivers and work its way underground, while emissions and dust will further endanger the Great Barrier Reef.
With rail and road infrastructure boosted, it is expected to lead to further mines nearby. A Reserve Bank report last September said that while Australia’s traditional thermal coal destinations, including China, Japan and South Korea, were transitioning from coal-powered electricity to less-carbon-intensive energy sources, demand from India and emerging economies, such as Vietnam, would become increasingly important. And demand for coal for the steel industry was expected to grow even if Chinese demand were to slow.
Harm on the farm
However, there is no question that climate change is warming Australia. Even the cautious government Bureau of Meteorology unequivocally accepts it’s getting hotter, saying in its annual climate statement issued on January 9: “Warming associated with anthropogenic climate change has seen Australian annual mean temperatures increase by over one degree since 1910. Most of this warming has occurred since 1950.”
Among the sobering new climate records the bureau lists the country as achieving last year: Australia’s warmest year on record, with the annual mean temperature 1.52°C above average; Australia’s driest year on record; and the national Forest Fire Danger Index at its highest since records began 70 years ago.
Already, the Australian economy is suffering the effects of the years-long drought and warming temperatures. Last month, the nation’s main agricultural forecaster, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, for the first time measured the crippling loss Australian farmers have experienced because of the increasingly warm and dry climate. It found that more than A$1 billion has been wiped from the value of Australia’s annual crop production thanks to the change in climate over the past two decades.
Further, changes in climate since 2000 had reduced the average extensive farmer’s profits by 22%, or about $18,600 a year. For crop farmers – considered the most heavily exposed to climate variability – annual farm profits fell by 35%, or $70,900.
“We knew it was big, but we didn’t have a precise number before and this model and method allows us to get at that,” report co-author Steve Hatfield-Dodds said.
Farmers whose paddocks have turned to dust and who are unable to afford fodder as the drought goes on have been destocking. The national sheep flock is forecast to fall to 65.8 million this year, among the lowest levels since the early 1900s. Beef production is forecast to decrease nearly 15% this year, the lowest output since 2010, with exports declining by more than 19% from 2019 levels.
The fires will have fresh impact, especially on cattle numbers: roughly 9% of the Australian cattle herd is in areas burnt by fires and another 11% in regions partially affected.
Economists polled by Reuters this week forecast Australia’s A$2 trillion annual GDP will be found to have expanded 1.8% in 2019, down from predictions of 1.9% in the previous poll and 2.7% early last year.
“The negative impact of bushfires is more enduring than other disasters such as floods,” said Michael Blythe, chief economist at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. “The impact is accentuated by the extreme drought conditions weighing on much of the landscape and particularly the agricultural sector.”
Lessons from history
What now? Turnbull this week suggested covering the degraded landscape of old coal mines with solar panels.
In his stirring piece for the Guardian, he concluded: “We can adapt to a hotter, drier climate. But the lies of the deniers have to be rejected. This is a time for truth telling, not obfuscation and gaslighting. Climate change is real. As real as the fires that only a month into summer have consumed nearly 10 million hectares.”
Rather than setting more ambitious emission-reduction goals, the Government will instead rely on a A$3.5 billion taxpayer investment in new, low-emission technologies and subsidies to business to meet its 2030 emissions targets. These include the huge Snowy Mountains 2.0 hydroelectricity project, battery storage, biofuels and electric vehicles.
Morrison now wants to set up a royal commission of inquiry to probe the fires – a time-worn response to large bushfire events in Australia; there have been 16 major inquiries in 80 years.
We don’t yet know the terms of reference for another inquiry. Will it be allowed, for instance, to examine the link between climate change and the most recent fires?
In May 1939, Melbourne judge Leonard Stretton won wide literary acclaim for the opening paragraphs of his report into Victoria’s Black Friday bushfires of that summer that took 71 lives. He wrote: “The rich plains, denied their beneficent rains, lay bare and baking, and the forests from the foothills to the alpine heights were tinder. The soft carpet of the forest floor was gone; the bone dry litter crackled underfoot; dry heat and hot dry winds worked upon a land already dry to suck from it the last, least drop of moisture. Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy. But though they felt the imminence of danger, they could not tell that it was to be far greater than they could imagine. They had not lived long enough.”
Stretton might have been describing the drought afflicting the Australia we know today, although the 1939 fires covered less than a quarter of the area burned so far this summer. What he could not know was that his conclusion as to the cause of those fires – which he attributed to a culture of indifference and carelessness – might be as true today as eight decades ago: “These fires were lit by the hand of man.”
This article was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.