Australia is on fire, literally — and so are its climate politics

Image: Australia brush fire
Rural Fire Service (RFS) firefighters fight a flare up on a containment line at the Three Mile Fire in the suburb of Kulnura on Dec. 10, 2019 on the Central Coast, Australia. Copyright Sam Mooy Getty Images
By Denise Chow with NBC News Tech and Science News
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Australia faces bushfires and record-setting heat, a double whammy of extremes that has amplified scrutiny of Australian climate politics.


More than 100 bushfires are raging in Australia as the continent swelters under record-setting heat, a double whammy of extremes that has amplified scrutiny of what experts say is stark inaction from the Australian government on climate change.

Blazes across New South Wales and Queensland have already scorched almost 7 million acres, and Australia experienced its hottest day on record Wednesday when the average temperature across the country hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.9 degrees Celsius).

The nation's woes are unfolding as Australia faces criticism for its inadequate climate policies, including the role of federal officials in thwarting negotiations at a recent United Nations summit on climate change.

Richie Merzian, director of the climate and energy program at The Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank that conducts public policy research, called the outcome of the 2019 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change a letdown. The summit ended Sunday in a stalemate, with countries largely delaying major decisions on plans to cut carbon emissions until next year's conference.

"It was terribly disappointing," Merzian said. "Australia is literally on fire right now, and it's clearly linked to climate change in terms of its severity and duration. But instead of going there to rally the world behind the need for greater climate action, Australia was lobbying to do as little as possible."

Seasonal bushfires occur naturally in Australia, but hotter and drier conditions due to climate change have increased the frequency of fires and their severity, according to Andy Pitman, a climate modeler at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

"There is an uncontroversial link whereby higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from climate change increase bushfire risk," Pitman said. "All other things being equal, a fire that occurs now will be worse than a fire that occurred 20 to 30 years ago."

People view smoke from scattered bush fires on a look out platform in the Blue Mountains on Dec. 4, 2019 in Katoomba, Australia.
People view smoke from scattered bush fires on a look out platform in the Blue Mountains on Dec. 4, 2019 in Katoomba, Australia.Brett Hemmings

Trees play an integral role in the planet's carbon cycle by absorbing carbon dioxide as they grow. But research has shown that when vegetation dries out — such as during hot and dry summer months — that increased amount of carbon dioxide acts as extra fuel for wildfires.

Human activities such as burning fossil fuels release greenhouse gases that trap heat and increase surface temperatures on the planet. A2018 State of the Climate report from the Australian government's Bureau of Meteorology found that the country has warmed by just over 1 degree Celsius since 1910, "leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events."

These heat waves combined with dry conditions are dangerous ingredients for bushfires, Pitman said, with circumstances appearing to be particularly severe at the moment.

"This is unprecedented," Pitman said. "I don't think we've ever seen bushfires at this scale before."

Bushfires themselves are also problematic because they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Australia's fires have already emitted an estimated 250 million tons of carbon dioxide — equivalent to nearly half of the nation's total yearly emissions —according to NASA data provided to The Guardian.

These events have renewed focus on Australia's prime minister, Scott Morrison, who has refused to answer questions about climate change and their link to the fires. His conservative administration has also faced backlash for its policies and rhetoric surrounding global warming.

In November, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said climate change concerns are stoked by "raving inner-city lefties," adding that there have been fires in Australia "since time began."

Pitman said that while there has been some progress made on the state level, the federal government has displayed a lack of political will to address climate change.

"They almost see it as a negotiating or debating point, and it's not," Pitman said. "This is an existential risk to communities and major regions of the planet, and if governments don't act, then the situation will simply deteriorate."

Imran Ahmad, a climate scientist at the Australian National University, said the Morrison administration's stance is symptomatic of Australia's complex history of climate change policy.

"There is an ideological drive against climate change by certain vested interests," he said.


Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal and the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels, after Russia and Saudi Arabia. Merzian, who worked as a climate negotiator for the Australian government for almost a decade, said these economic ties have shaped the country's climate policies for decades — and invite international criticism.

"You can't be the largest exporter of coal, which is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions when consumed, and not take any responsibility for that," Merzian said.

In 2012, Australia's Labor Government introduced a carbon tax that helped the country reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 1.4 percent by the end of its second year. But the policy was unpopular, and in 2014, the newly elected government promptly repealed the tax.

"Any new tax is unpopular, but unfortunately by the time it was dismantled, we could see that it was working," Merzian said. "It was reducing emissions, but it just didn't have enough momentum to survive quite a strong negative campaign."

As one of the countries that ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement, a global pact aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change, Australia will join 187 other countries in pledging to meet its reduction goals next year. Pitman said Australia has much at stake, with fragile ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef under severe threat from warming oceans and the country grappling with bushfires. Still, he added that it's difficult to be optimistic about the country's direction on climate change.


"The Great Barrier Reef is a multibillion-dollar asset to Australia, and it's being sacrificed at the altar of carbon dioxide emissions," he said. "It's really important to understand that decisions that need to be made on carbon emission are politically painful, and there is no one more skilled at avoiding difficult political decisions than politicians."

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