In Melbourne, close to 10,000 people took to the streets, spurning calls from police and the state’s center-left leader, Daniel Andrews, not to risk diverting emergency resources.
“Look at this through the lens of emergency services and the communities ravaged by fires — is this the best way to demonstrate your support?” said Tim Hansen, acting assistant commissioner of Victoria police. The force later said no officers would be pulled back from the fires to manage the protest.
The demonstrations unfolded as blazes burned out of control in several states. Victoria, much of it already declared a disaster area, faced extreme conditions again Friday, while firefighters in New South Wales warned that existing blazes whipped up by strong gusts could merge into one giant inferno.
Protesters in nine cities directed rage at Morrison, chanting “ScoMo has got to go” — using the prime minister’s nickname.
Erin Kimsey, 20, held a sign that read, “We can’t breathe.” She said her father was a volunteer firefighter and had been sent to the state’s east to help. “It’s shocking what’s happening, and there’s not really any action on climate change,” she said.
Maddie Chung, 21, said her family in rural Victoria was at risk from fires and might have to evacuate. “This is a very real situation, and we are calling for action,” she said.
While summer wildfires are a regular and often deadly occurrence in Australia — 173 people were killed when blazes torched Victoria in 2009 — this season’s fires have been far more extensive, fueled by a three-year drought and high temperatures.
At least 27 people have been killed, more than 2,000 homes destroyed, and wildlife devastated across a swath of the continent since October. Thousands have been forced to evacuate, some sheltering on beaches from encroaching flames. The fires have turned the skies red and blanketed cities in smoke.
“We are running out of time to act on climate,” said Anneke Demanuele, a convener of Uni Students for Climate Justice who joined the Melbourne protest, as a cooler change brought rain to the city.
A speaker at the rally, Jerome Small, said there has been a groundswell around the issue as a result of activists such as Greta Thunberg. But he slammed politicians, calling them a “massive political and economic roadblock.”
“What we’re seeing is the direct result of climate change and a series of decisions made by the most powerful people in Australia,” he told the crowd.
An organizer of a similar rally in Sydney, Gavin Stanbrook, said the events of recent weeks revealed a nation polarized over how to tackle the challenge.
“We are divided between coal interests and politicians on the one side and then firefighters and volunteers on the other and the rest of us who are either impacted or our friends and family are on the front line, or in cities surrounded by smoke,” Stanbrook said. “We need to come together and say that we will not accept it anymore.”
Morrison has said he is considering an inquiry into the disaster, with officials weighing its likely scope. Last week he called up army reservists to help contain the crisis and assist with evacuations, while also announcing funding to help communities recover.
“This is initial, and this is urgent — there will be more,” Morrison told reporters Friday.
Polls show that Australians consider climate change a menace to the nation. Some 64 percent see climate change as a critical threat, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2018 and 18 points since 2014, according to a Lowy Institute survey last year. And 61 percent of respondents wanted mitigation steps even if they involve significant costs.
Yet the climate debate has riven Australia’s politics in recent years and contributed to the downfall of at least three of Morrison’s predecessors.
In elections in May, voters in mining-dependent regions punished the opposition center-left Labor Party over fears that its climate policies would endanger jobs, while support for the ruling conservatives slipped in some urban areas where voters want a bolder approach. Former conservative prime minister Tony Abbott, who once dismissed climate science as “absolute crap,” lost the Sydney seat he had held since 1994 to an independent candidate who made climate action central to her campaign.
While Australia directly accounts for a little over 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse emissions, its status as one of the world’s largest coal exporters means it contributes to considerably more.
The country’s economic growth of the past three decades was driven in large part by exporting coal, iron ore and other resources to the fast-expanding economies of Asia. Yet this summer’s apocalyptic scenes have prompted many to call for a rethink.
Tim Flannery, a climate scientist, said the link between many politicians and polluting industries was too strong.
“It’s completely irresponsible that Australia continues to rely on coal for the majority of its electricity. The coal industry has a lot to answer for,” he said.
Australia signed the Paris climate agreement, pledging to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. But based on current trends, the country is not expected to meet that target, according to Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis of climate policies, despite growth in renewable energy.
In November, a group of more than 20 retired fire chiefs said they had been trying to get a meeting with Morrison since April to brief him on the expected catastrophic conditions.
“We predicted exactly what’s happening now, and measures could have been taken months ago,” said former fire chief Greg Mullins.