The Sydney Opera House, whose white-tiled sails normally sparkle in the sunlight, was seen through a haze of smoke. Asthmatics were advised against exercising. Schoolchildren were kept in their classrooms, away from the smoke-filled playground.
And politicians, especially from the ruling conservative coalition, issued instructions that it was inappropriate to discuss climate change while the fires were actively being fought.
That instruction fell on deaf ears.
How could climate change not be discussed? Australia has a history of terrible bushfires, but many on the front line of the blazes used the same phrase: “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
Not this early in the season. And not over such a geographical spread. On one day, late last week, there were out-of-control fires in all six Australian states.
The deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, went furthest in trying to shut down the wider discussion, attacking the “inner-city, raving lunatics” who were obsessed with climate change. People on the front line, he said, “don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes.”
But it’s hard to find proof of McCormack’s contention that concern over climate change is limited to the cities. According to the Australia Talks National Survey released last month, climate change is now the issue most worrying Australians, with 72 percent of respondents saying it would affect their lives.
City newspapers are full of despairing letters linking the fires to global warming. But so are the newspapers outside the city. In the coastal town of Port Macquarie, close to several fires, the air is thick with smoke, with local schools closed more often than they are open.
“Scientists have been warning us for decades that climate change will bring about these devastating results,” writes one reader in the local paper, the Port Macquarie News. “It is in our own interest to take action on climate change,” chimes another.
Or from the letter’s page of McCormack’s own hometown newspaper, the Wagga Daily Advertiser: “Michael McCormack … is one fossil that I am sure most Australians would be in favour of exporting to China or India.” Or from another reader: “We need humble leaders … actively listening to climate models and scientists predicting these conditions.”
Of course, Australia has been here before. Concern about climate change has waxed and waned. Citizens say they care about global warming and then vote for governments that appear halfhearted about achieving real change.
Why the disconnect? Some cite Australia’s tendency to hold elections in winter, as if a few showers of rain reliably wipe our memories. That may have happened in the past, but these fires, and the associated drought, look like an inflection point.
The term “unprecedented” is becoming the word of the year. There’s the “unprecedented” death of hundreds of thousands of fish in the country’s most important river system. There’s the “unprecedented” extent of the fires in the forests and woodlands of eastern New South Wales, with its 6,000-kilometer fire front, equal to a return trip between Sydney and Perth. And the “unprecedented” cataclysmic fire warning issued for Sydney and its more than 5 million inhabitants, with the government declaring a state of emergency.
In rural Australia, some towns are reaching the end of their water supply, with no clear idea of what happens once the taps run dry. Meanwhile — unprecedented again — 23 former fire and emergency services leaders issued a joint statement blaming the fires on climate change and demanding the country do more to reduce greenhouse gases.
Will winter rains, if they ever come, wash away the dark memories of November — of the six deaths, so early in the fire season? The more than 600 houses lost? The burned koalas, their scorched paws bandaged by wildlife rescuers?
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is maintaining his stance that Australia’s climate change policies have no impact on the fires: “To suggest that with just 1.3 percent of global emissions that Australia doing something differently, more or less, would have changed the fire outcome this season, I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all,” he said last week.
Some put our total emissions higher. By adding the carbon embedded in our exports, estimates put our global contribution at 3.6 percent. Others prefer a per capita calculation, under which we rate worse than all our key trading partners.
For me, these mathematical tussles are beside the point. Australia is one of the countries most exposed to the risk of climate change. More important, we’ve never used our size as a reason not to be involved in the world’s great causes. The nearly 1 million Australians who served in World War II, to cite the most obvious example, could have left it to others. But the idea would have appalled a previous generation of Australians — and should appall us today.
This summer’s desperate battle against drought and flame may finally reforge the conviction that Australia and its people can and should make a difference.