The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As fires devastate Australia, a coal-loving leader faces an early test

Prime Minister Scott Morrison visits a military staging ground Wednesday at Kingscote Airport on Australia’s Kangaroo Island, which has been devastated by bush fires. (David Mariuz/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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SWAN REACH, Australia — Scott Morrison famously held up a grapefruit-size lump of coal in Parliament and told the public there was nothing to fear.

“This is coal. This is coal. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be scared! Won’t hurt you. Won’t hurt you,” the future prime minister said in 2017, when he was a lawmaker. He accused his partisan adversaries as having “coalaphobia,” adding that “affordable energy is what Australian businesses need to remain competitive.”

But the wildfires raging now on his continent, supercharged by climate change linked to the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, have created a searing test of Morrison’s ability to lead his country through the crisis.

His reputation as a coal advocate has not helped as he has struggled to project empathy for victims of the fires, which have burned millions acres, killed an estimated two dozen people and hundreds of thousands of animals, and filled the usually clear Australian air with smoke.

The disaster has re-energized a long-running national debate over climate change and the country’s heavy investment in coal mining. Australia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of coal. Global activists have accused Morrison’s government of helping to scuttle progress on international climate talks late last year. Morrison skipped the climate meeting convened by the United Nations in September.

Protesters plan to take to the streets in a string of Australian cities Friday in demonstrations organized by Uni Students for Climate Justice. Morrison has mocked environmentalists as “apocalyptic” and has threatened to outlaw protests.

The prime minister has also been pilloried for taking a family vacation to Hawaii just before Christmas. His constituents saw pictures of him wearing shorts and a T-shirt on the beach, flashing a thumbs up and looking jolly. Australia was already deep into a devastating bush-fire season — one that would get even worse in the days ahead.

So would the optics for Morrison. A few days ago, as the prime minister toured one of the devastated fire zones, a video captured the awkward moment when a volunteer firefighter refused to shake his hand. Another clip showed citizens angrily heckling him. This week, murals mocking Morrison have popped up on streetscapes, including one in which he’s shown on fire, with a word balloon saying “This is fine.”

Morrison is fighting back on the image front. His right-of-center Liberal Party produced an advertisement highlighting Morrison’s efforts to fight the fires by calling out army reservists and sending in more equipment. But the upbeat, toe-tapping music and self-congratulatory message struck some Aussies as dismayingly tone-deaf.

“The prime minister is being revealed as a hollow spin doctor who is inept as a leader in a national emergency. He will never live this down,” said Robyn Eckers­ley, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne who has followed climate politics for three decades.

“What he lacked in this process was empathy. It wasn’t there,” said Barrie Cassidy, a veteran journalist. “He couldn’t find the right message.”

Southeastern Australia has been scorched by at least 200 fires, with close to 2,000 homes destroyed since the bush-fire season began in September. In recent days, some rain and lower temperatures have given firefighters a momentary break. But hotter, drier weather is expected this weekend, and no significant rainfall is in the forecast.

Morrison and his center-right coalition government have been the focus of widespread condemnation over accusations that they failed to heed warnings from experts that this would be a devastating bush-fire season. Greg Mullins, the former fire commissioner of New South Wales, was among 30 retired emergency officials who pleaded with the Morrison government for more aircraft and funding, but he told an Australian television show that Morrison would not meet with them.

Climate change makes extreme weather more likely and can intensify specific events. The area hit by the fires has been in a years-long drought. Prescribed burns, designed to lower the fuel load in the bush, have been reduced as the cool season when such fires are possible has shrunk, said Brian Myers, a forester and research scientist whose community near Cobargo was largely destroyed by the fires.

The driving force behind the planet’s warming is the spike in greenhouse gases caused by the burning of fossil fuels. So it can be a rough time to be a politician known as a champion of coal mining.

While public concern about climate change has fluctuated over the past two decades, a 2018 national poll found 59 percent of Australians agreed that “global warming is a serious and pressing problem” that should be tackled “even if this involves significant costs.”

In recent days, Morrison has said his government accepts the scientific consensus on climate change and the role of fossil fuels. He reaffirmed the government’s commitment to meeting or exceeding goals for reducing carbon emissions. But he also emphasizes the need to protect jobs.

“Our emissions reductions policies will both protect our environment and seek to reduce the risks and hazards we are seeing today,” he said, “and at the same time, it will seek to ensure the viability of people’s jobs and their livelihoods all around the country. What we will do is ensure that our policies remain sensible, that they don’t move to either extreme.”

The Australian coal industry says it provides 50,000 jobs directly and 120,000 indirectly.

Morrison has made another move in response to the fires: No longer will he seek to run a budget surplus, a promise that helped his party win a surprise victory in May. As part of that reversal, he has pledged $2 billion in funding for fire disaster recovery.

In recent days, Morrison’s handling of the crisis has been defended on television by a Liberal Party member of Parliament, Craig Kelly.

“To try to make out, as some politicians have, to hijack this debate, exploit this tragedy and push their ideological barrow, that somehow or another the Australian government could have done something by reducing its carbon emissions that would have reduced these bush fires, is just complete nonsense,” Kelly said.

But the critics have not said the policies caused the fires. Rather, they want the government to be a leader in fighting climate change. Meanwhile, Morrison and his allies have approved a huge new coal mine in Queensland.

“While the rest of the world is trying to move away from coal, the position of this government is to support actively the building of the biggest coal mine ever in the history of this country,” said Geoff Cousins, former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

The debate about climate change does not seem abstract to people who cannot go for a jog without risking their health because of the heavy smoke that hangs over the country’s most populated cities.

When Kim McKay, director and chief executive of the Australian Museum, drank her morning coffee Wednesday on Sydney Harbor, she could not see the famous Sydney Opera House across the water through the smoke that had settled in the metropolitan basin ringed by mountains. The smoke, she said, “has made people understand that this is more than just the bush-fire season, that this is a climate emergency.”

It is summer Down Under, when Australian families traditionally go on holiday. For many, this means a vacation at the beach. Others retreat to the mountains or some remote place in the bush. They hole up in cabins that have been in their families for generations. But all that seems quaint and far away in this summer of fire, when beaches have become staging grounds for people fleeing by boat and when homes in the bush are burned to their foundations.

“What we’re witnessing in a way is the incineration of people’s memories,” said David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

In Mallacoota, an isolated town in the southeastern region of East Gippsland, business owner Mark Peters said he feared for his life as the fires raced toward the sea on New Year’s Eve. People sheltered on the beach, worried that they might have to swim for their lives.

“It was about 9 p.m. that night that I could see massive explosions from the wharf,” he said. “I knew my house was gone. It was loud and dark, and the wind was swirling up to 60 knots, and the channeling fire created a weather pattern that threw out lightning strikes that hit houses. It was terrifying and random, and no one has ever seen anything like it.”

The wind changed, and the fire stopped short of the beach.

“Everyone would have been dead if the wind hadn’t changed,” he said.

In the town of Rainbow Flat, the home of the Suddells, Jenny and Chris, went up in flames during the early phase of this terrible bush-fire season, before the conflagrations drew global attention and became the kind of disaster cited by movie stars in award-show speeches. The Suddells live now in a rented home. They are among the thousands of fire refugees.

“We’re all very depressed, and we know that we are a long, long way off any kind of rebuild,” Jenny Suddell said this week. “It won’t be the same. All the trees are dead and will need to come down. And there are no koalas left.”

Achenbach reported from Washington. Andrew Freedman in Washington contributed to this report.

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