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This is not a drill

It’s not as though the world needed more warnings about the climate crisis, but Australia’s catastrophic wildfires have established a new reality for the terrifying pace and alarming consequences of global warming.

The wildfires, which have killed more than two dozen people and an estimated one billion animals, are the result of record heat and lasting droughts that are entirely consistent with scientific predictions of climate change. Set to worsen as summer progresses, the firestorms are still just a harbinger of what’s to come if the world misses its chance to limit warming to 1.5°C this decade.

In a nation that, given two clear climate-change-mitigation alternatives to vote for last year, chose the option that was only half as fast in reducing emissions, these savage fires must surely trigger an urgent reassessment.

The exact spark of the fires and the potential for mitigation are under debate. It’s alleged, without much evidence, a green-motivated clampdown on controlled burnoffs – a fire-containment precaution practised for generations – may have exacerbated the crisis. Yet Australia must urgently reorder its priorities. Its Government attracted international fury last year by announcing plans to use a loophole in carbon accounting that experts say would undermine the Paris Agreement, designed to limit global warming to safer levels. That “accounting trick”, as it was described by critics, limits the pressure on one of the richest nations on Earth to curtail its coal- and gas-exporting sectors.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has responded to criticism by pointing out his duty to put Australians’ economic welfare first. Yet Australia’s massive carbon-emission catastrophe is every country’s problem. It cannot quarantine itself from global responsibility.

New Zealand is among the first nations directly affected, with our orange skies a visual portent of the shared problem. Predictions are that the Australian fires, estimated to have released 350 million metric tonnes of CO2 this season, will accelerate the melting of our glaciers.

New Zealand may also have to prepare policies for a potential exodus from Australia if parts of that country are reassessed as unsuitable for future habitation. Even if some Australians, wishing to return to devastated areas, downplay the impact of warming on their habitat, the insurance industry will not, and nor will those in the emergency services.

 

New Zealand is already grappling with climate-crisis issues, though, blessedly, much less for rapid fire risk than for sea-level displacement and erosion. Whole waterfront communities here face the real possibility that, even if climate change were to be held within the most optimistic of timeframes, many homes will be surrounded by water. Yet, as Australia burns, it has exponentially less time than we have to work out how to relocate and compensate people. There are critical decisions to be made on how to manage not just wilderness and agricultural areas but whole towns and cities.

Unfortunately, Australia’s economy is facing adversity on multiple fronts for intersecting reasons. Its wheat industry is flagging and mining is fluctuating, and the incessant footage of incinerated towns, frightened people on beaches and cruelly scorched animals is likely to now hit its tourism income. Still, the self-described “lucky country” has the resources, and certainly the incentive, for change. Even BHP, the country’s global mining giant, has been busy reframing itself as a potential force for green good – promoting its prominence as an extractor of copper (despite the environmental and potential health effects) because electric vehicles reportedly need four times as much of the mineral as standard cars.

Perhaps the one precious dividend from the global gasp of shock at Australia’s plight is that it has made climate change’s impact vividly real – not some notional problem for which we must atone by 2030 or 2050. Just as a sense of imminent threat from war can make self-sacrifice politically palatable, so should the orange skies and suffering of so many humans and animals make it possible for Australia’s leaders, and those of other countries, to accelerate the painful pace of adjustment.

Demonisation of Australia and its Government at this point is utterly counterproductive. A democracy whose people thought they had more time to reduce emissions has found out it was wrong. It is a lesson none of us can ignore.

This editorial was first published in the January 18, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.