Devastated residents, some of whom had lost their houses and livelihoods, vented their frustration at Morrison, a vocal supporter of Australia’s coal industry and a climate change skeptic.
In a video captured by Australia’s ABC News broadcaster, one resident glared at Morrison and told him that she would only shake his hand if he provided more funds for Australia’s fire service, which relies primarily on volunteers.
“So many people here have lost their homes. We need more help,” she said, as he moved on.
“You control the funding, and we were forgotten," a woman in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt walking a goat shouted at Morrison.
“You won’t be getting any votes down here, buddy,” promised an angry man. “No Liberal [Party] votes. You’re out, son. You are out.”
As Morrison headed to his car, one Cobargo resident had the final say.
“You’re not welcome here,” he shouted in the video, calling the prime minister an expletive.
In response to the heckling, Morrison later told Australia’s ABC news broadcaster: “I understand the very strong feelings people have.”
“They’ve lost everything, and there are still some very dangerous days ahead," he said. “My job is to ensure that we steady things through these very difficult days and support the states in the response that they are providing.”
Morrison faced flak last month for taking a vacation to Hawaii while the fires burned. He apologized and returned home, but many Australians remain incensed at what they see as government neglect.
An unprecedented environmental crisis
Since September, bush fires have killed 18 people and destroyed over 1,200 homes in New South Wales and the adjacent Victoria state. Just this week, at least another 17 people in these areas were reported missing, and about 4,000 people were trapped in a beach town in Victoria, unable to escape because of advancing fires. The government has declared a state of emergency there for the first time.
Bush fires are a yearly occurrence in parts of dry Australia. But climate scientists have tied the longevity and severity of this year’s fires to climate change in a country that relies heavily on carbon-producing industries such as coal. The fires began earlier than average, and heat waves in the fall and winter made for even more combustible conditions. December was one of two hottest months on record in Australia and 2019 the hottest and driest year yet. Dec. 18 ominously marked Australia’s hottest day ever, beating out the record set the day before.
Reckoning with climate change — and its skeptics
The fires have prompted a moment of political reckoning in Australia. Images of destroyed buildings beneath apocalyptic red-orange skies have not played well for the country’s conservative, coal-supporting prime minister.
Morrison has called on Australians to be patient and rebuffed criticisms that his government hasn’t done enough to reduce emissions.
“Morrison is firmly part of Liberal Party politicians who are outright opposed to taking any steps that could compromise Australia’s coal economy,” said Matto Mildenberger, an assistant professor of political science and environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbra, who is writing a book on Australia’s climate politics. “He’s opposed to climate reforms and committed to the fossil fuels economy.”
In November, the prime minister pledged to outlaw climate protests, saying that they disrupted the economy. Just before heading off on his ill-timed Hawaii holiday, Morrison’s government announced plans to underwrite two gas-fired power stations. But he also didn’t rule out new coal-fired power plants.
“I am quite agnostic, just as long as it is reliable and it is cheaper…. You deal with the environmental challenge, you make sure you keep your economy growing and get power prices down," he said, according to the Guardian, adding, “There’ll be lots of shouting noises elsewhere, but I tend to listen to those quiet still voices.”
Morrison used similar language in May, when he praised “quiet Australians” for helping him win reelection. Morrison’s Liberal party did notably well in Queensland, where there’s a controversial plan in the works to build one of the world’s largest coal mines.
A 2019 study by Sydney University found that 78 percent of Australians support reducing fossil fuels and 64 percent approve of higher taxes to do so. Even 62 percent of those who voted for Morrison said they back fossil fuel reductions, and 48 percent support raising taxes. The bush fires are one of several environmental crises — including the bleaching of the country’s Great Barrier Reef and an ongoing drought — currently facing Australians.
“The issue of climate change has roiled Australian politics for a decade and a half now,” said Mildenberger, explaining that politicians both for and against climate action have lost power over policy debates.
As May’s election showed, however, climate change hasn’t often been the dominant issue driving votes.
“Climate change has rarely been the ballot question,” Mildenberger said. It’s a trend he’s noted in research around the world — anti-climate-policy politicians have been elected despite populations showing support for government action on climate.
That, though, could also be shifting in Australia. For people already concerned about climate change, said Mildenberger, events like the bush fires are “going to make climate change a bigger part of the narrow set of questions that they are using to make political and electoral decisions.”
In the meantime, Australians remain consumed by just making it through the fires. As one response, Australian artist Scott Marsh has been fundraising for the country’s rural fire service (RFS) through prints and T-shirts he created: The image on them shows Morrison in a Hawaiian shirt and Santa Claus hat, holding a drink and surrounded by flames.
“Merry Crisis!!” reads the caricatured prime minister’s speech bubble.
As of Thursday, Marsh had raised more than 90,000 Australian dollars, or more than $60,000 in U.S. currency.