Australia has been on fire for weeks. Millions of acres have been scorched by an unprecedented spate of bushfires that have killed six people and destroyed more than 600 homes. Upwards of 1,000 koalas — one of the country’s iconic creatures — are thought to have been burned alive.
The fires have been affecting millions in the Sydney region for weeks as residents have woken up to skies darkened by smoke blown in from nearby blazes. The region’s Rural Fire Service has issued advisory after advisory warning of the health risks, and the haze has gotten so bad at points the city has recorded the highest levels of air pollution on record.
At the same time, Australian politicians have been working overtime to minimize those linking the early and destructive fire season with climate change. The country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, has rejected assertions that the government’s decision to back some of the planet’s biggest fossil fuel projects had impacted the fire season, and even moved to punish environmental protesters with jail time for “denying the liberties of Australians.”
“The suggestion that any way shape or form that Australia, accountable for 1.3% of the world’s emissions, that the individual actions of Australia are impacting directly on specific fire events, whether it’s here or anywhere else in the world, that doesn’t bear up to credible scientific evidence either,” Morrison said last week, per The Guardian. “To suggest that … Australia doing something more or less would change the fire outcome this season — I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.”
Scientists, by and large, disagree with Morrison’s assessment and fire officials and environmentalists alike have moved to urge the government to address its lack of climate action. The United Nations has urged countries to dramatically scale back their use of fossil fuel immediately to avert the worst effects of climate change (recent studies have found the world on track to blow past those goals). And while the origin of any natural disaster is complicated, there are clear links between a warming climate and increased bushfire risk.
Earlier this month a group of former fire chiefs declared the latest season the opening of a “new age of unprecedented bushfire danger” and accused Morrison’s government of ignoring climate change because it was inconvenient.
“If we’re not going to talk about it now, when it is happening, when on earth are we going to talk about it?” Phil Koperberg, the first commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, told the Australian Broadcasting Company this week.
“Something is clearly changing,” Richard Thornton, the chief executive of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Center, told The New York Times last week. “And the climate is driving all of that.”
Everyday Australians haven’t shied away from trying to hold their politicians accountable. Alongside images of scorched homes, koalas have become the unwitting icon of this round of blazes. An effort by a local wildlife hospital to raise $25,000 for koalas injured by the fires has blown past that goal by orders of magnitude, garnering nearly $1.7 million.
Students across the country are also planning for a widespread day of climate protest on Friday, in hopes of urging politicians to “treat climate change for what it is — a crisis.”
“Our Government’s inaction on the climate crisis has supercharged bushfires. People are hurting. Communities like ours are being devastated. Summer hasn’t even begun,” Shiann Broderick, the leader of School Strike 4 Climate, the organizer of the protest, said in a statement last week. “But instead of taking real action on the climate crisis, our Government offers ‘thoughts, prayers’ — and more support for coal, oil and gas.”
Despite weeks of effort to contain the spate of fires, there were still 83 burning across the state of New South Wales on Tuesday morning, with thunderstorms on the way that fire officials worried could bring lightning strikes that set off new blazes.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said last weekend the state government stood “shoulder to shoulder with the communities affected by the recent bushfires, not just today, but in the weeks months and years ahead.” She has pledged more than $32 million for fire recovery and rebuilding efforts.