“We demand the government: Pay all firefighters and give the force full funding; Provide genuine relief and aid for affected communities; Begin the immediate rapid transition away from fossil fuels; Sack Scomo!” reads one Facebook page for a protest in Melbourne organized by the Uni Students for Climate Justice.
Morrison has previously mocked this “new breed of radical activism” that he calls “apocalyptic in tone,” and he has pledged to outlaw climate-change-related boycotts. Australia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of coal, and Morrison has long advocated for the carbon-polluting industry.
As for Friday’s demonstrations, the bush fires themselves may complicate the outrage. On Wednesday, Lisa Neville, the emergency services minister for Victoria state, which includes Melbourne, called on activists to cancel or postpone their march, as fires are expected to worsen in the area Friday.
“I don’t want to see police having to pull people out of [fire-affected] communities to come in and manage a protest,” Neville said, the Guardian reported.
The bush fires have burned more than 2.9 million acres and killed three people in Victoria state alone. Across the country, hundreds of wildfires have killed at least 25 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. The fires have torched an area twice the size of Maryland and have been fueled by drought and Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Experts estimate that they have killed anywhere from 480 million to more than 1 billion animals, including koalas and kangaroos. Some people trapped in the path of the bush fires have had to seek safety on the beach.
Climate scientists also say that the longevity and severity of this year’s fires are tied to climate change and carbon-producing industries, such as coal, that the country relies on heavily. The fires have already blackened the skies and polluted the air in Australian cities hundreds of miles away from the epicenter; now the haze and chemicals that the fires release are drifting all the way to the Southern Hemisphere and clouding skies in places like Chile and Argentina.
Bush fires are a yearly occurrence in dry parts of Australia, but they typically never start this early or last this long. Morrison has tried to downplay the severity of the crisis and to distance the fires from his pro-coal and climate-change-skeptic policies. It’s not just his politics, however, that is angering people: The prime minister took a family vacation to Hawaii in December amid the national devastation.
Australia relies on thousands of volunteer firefighters, who have had to the leave their day jobs to battle the flames. Distraught residents have lashed out at Morrison and appealed to national and international aid groups for help in fighting the fires and dealing with the aftermath.
Some celebrities and billionaires have headed the call.
Australian actor Chris Hemsworth this week pledged to donate $1 million and implored his social media followers to contribute as well. (Hemsworth stars as Thor in the Marvel franchise and has made at least $15 million per Marvel movie since 2017.)
Singer Elton John, while on tour during his Farewell Yellow Brick Road concert in Sydney, announced he will also donate $1 million to aid affected Australians. (He ranked 19th of 100 top-earning celebrities on Forbes’ 2019 list.)
Other celebrities who have announced donations include Aussie Nicole Kidman and her husband, Kiwi-Australian Keith Urban. The power couple have donated $500,000 to Australia’s firefighters; in 2018, they donated $100,000 toward drought relief. The couple in 2008 bought a $4.1 million farm in Bunya Hill, Australia — a property they say is now under threat from the fires.
Earlier this week, American singer Lizzo, who is on tour in Australia, volunteered at a Foodbank in Victoria and implored her fans to pay attention to the climate-change connection.
“I don’t want to politicize anything,” she wrote in an Instagram story (which disappear after 24-hours), according to CNN. “This isn’t a political issue at this point, this is a human issue. The CO2 emissions that are being created by this fire are staggering and it affects the world.”
Some who have profited from Australia’s mining industry are also now pitching in. Andrew Forrest, an Australian billionaire who has made his money from mining nickel and iron, has pledged $48.1 million toward volunteers, relief funding and developing a “long-term blueprint for fire resilience.”
The actual cost of dealing with the short- and long-term impacts of the bush fires, however, is staggering.
Morrison has promised to pay “whatever it takes” to help affected communities. On Sunday, he pledged that his government would commit an extra $1.4 billion toward recoveries, on top of the tens of million of dollars already allocated.
The environmental group Greenpeace denounced the funding as “a drop in the ocean."
“Every single cent of that money should be contributed by the coal, gas and oil companies whose carbon pollution has caused the climate crisis that has created these extreme fire conditions, right across the country,” said Jamie Hanson, head of campaigns at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, in a statement to the Associated Press. “Slugging everyday taxpayers with the bill for this just adds insult to injury. These big polluters have become rich by trashing our climate, and it’s time that they started coughing up for the repair bill.”