The harrowing scenes echo across our screens. Blazes of red. Charred forests. Burned homes. The record fires – always a new record these days – spit out plumes of smoke that choke the air and cast a pall. The daytime sky darkens, a gauze of orange and brown.
Southeastern Australia suffers today. Before Australia, it was California, British Columbia, Alberta.
The scale in Australia, however, is far greater.
The disastrous Fort McMurray fire of 2016 – where insured losses tallied almost $4-billion – covered 5,900 square kilometres, larger than Prince Edward Island. The record 2017 fires in B.C. burned 12,000 square kilometres. The record stood one year. In 2018, 13,500 square kilometres of B.C. burned. The same year, California’s catastrophic fires killed more than 100 people and burned 7,700 square kilometres.
The fires in Australia have burned about 50,000 square kilometres – more than all the above combined. The death toll has reached two dozen, more than a thousand homes are gone and the Australian navy is helping evacuate thousands of people.
Climate change does not cause wildfires, and battling climate heating will not prevent future fires. But climate change’s role is clear. “This is what climate change looks like,” declared an Australian climate researcher in Scientific American. Fire seasons are longer than before, and the blazes are worse. The fires are a harbinger of the worsening upheavals the world faces. “If we do not name the problem, we cannot hope to solve it,” wrote Leah Stokes, a Canadian professor at University of California Santa Barbara, after that state’s largest wildfire.
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has identified a “long-term increase in extreme fire weather and in the length of the fire season” across much of the country since the mid-20th century. “Climate change, including increasing temperatures, is contributing to these changes,” the bureau said. The findings in North America are the same.
Ahead of the summer in Australia, the country experienced its driest-ever spring. It exacerbated a multiyear drought in the region of the fires. Last month, the country set successive records for the average daily temperature, topping out at 41.9 C.
Anger in southeastern Australia at the inaction of Scott Morrison, the country’s Prime Minster, is palpable. Citizens and firefighters refused to shake his hand and shouted epithets at him last week when he visited a ravaged region. Mr. Morrison’s errors are numerous – for months he ignored calls from fire experts to better prepare – and now attention has zeroed in on his centre-right Liberal government’s reticence on climate change.
Like Canada and the United States, Australia is a major producer of fossil fuels, and among the world’s top exporters of coal and liquefied natural gas. In 2011, a left-leaning Labour government instituted a small carbon tax. The Liberals quashed it in 2014. The vague scheme that replaced the carbon tax has achieved little. In the latest tally, Australia’s emissions were climbing. The country is nowhere close to reaching its 2030 Paris Agreement targets and was part of the reason the annual United Nations climate meeting in December failed to achieve its goals.
As more people see the connection between devastating fires and human-caused climate heating, politicians such as Mr. Morrison could find themselves in trouble.
His coalition government won a narrow re-election last May, but his interest in climate change is middling. He said it is just one of many factors in the fires and his worry is about “economy-wrecking or job-destroying” policies. His energy minister has argued Australia produces “only” 1.3 per cent of global emissions.
These are typical conservative arguments and will be familiar to Canadians. But thinking among conservative politicians could be upended as public opinion shifts. Mr. Morrison’s recent rough ride is a possible indication of that. Australia operates on three-year election cycles, so another vote arrives in 2022. In Canada, coming up with a real plan for climate action will be a central point of debate as the federal Conservative Party elects its new leader.
Climate politics are changing fast.
It is becoming evermore clear that the cost of inaction is much greater than the cost of grappling with the challenge. Leaders who refuse to pay attention and take action could pay a political price.
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