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Are Australia's bushfires our future?

Amid the global consequences of a pandemic, the fires that devastated the country earlier this year can seem less significant – but they portend a far greater crisis.

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Before Covid-19 colonised our imaginations and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, 2020 looked set to be remembered for a different calamity. From December 2019 and into 2020, fires burned in Australia like never before. By their end, they had affected more than one billion animals, displaced almost twice that number, razed some 20 million acres of land (a surface area the size of many small countries combined) and emitted so much toxic smoke that, if the fires were a nation, they would have ranked as the sixth most polluting one in the world.

It was a global catastrophe, and a global spectacle. As footage of the fires spread around the world, a nation known for its sun, golden sands and unique wildlife became identified with a darker iconography: towering infernos raging through the bush, children in gas masks, blood red skies, and charred animals trapped in barbed wire, trying to flee the flames.

All this seemed tailor-made for our end-of-the-world imaginings. “It may seem callous to say it,” the columnist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, “[but] this disaster is unusually photogenic.”

Yet the attention also felt more meaningful than voyeuristic. The drastic future about which so many climate scientists had warned felt immediate, tangible and overwhelming. Australia’s devastation stood as an epochal event, a wake-up call. “The moment of crisis has come,” David Attenborough declared.

But all fires go out eventually, and things don’t always rise from the ashes. Amid the global consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, Australia’s bushfires seem less significant, more parochial: a catastrophe confined to a single country. Many of the dramatic effects of the fires foreshadowed those of the virus: people trapped indoors, face masks worn in public, the widespread feeling of living in a dystopian movie, the ruination of the tourism industry, the repeated use of the word “unprecedented”. 

Yet the fires were much more than a support act for coronavirus. They portend a far greater crisis. The pandemic may hold our attention now but, as the UN secretary-general António Guterres warned in April, climate change remains the most serious threat facing the planet. Lise Kingo, the former executive director of the UN Global Compact corporate sustainability programme, recently described the pandemic as “just a fire drill” for the consequences of climate change – which include more mega-fires, in Australia and elsewhere. On 18 August, Death Valley, in the east of California, registered 54.4˚C – possibly the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth. “California is Australia now,” the climate writer David Wallace-Wells wrote, as wildfires roared through the US state.

The coronavirus crisis may have complicated the legacy of Australia’s historic fires, eclipsing our sense of scale, as well as the national effort of recovery. But the ominous possibilities of our heating planet aren’t paused by the pandemic and, as its latest fire season showed, Australia is at the extreme edge of a future awaiting us all.

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Australia has experienced deadlier blazes. The loss of life caused by fires on Ash Wednesday in 1983 (75 dead) or Black Saturday in 2009 (173 dead) exceeds the 34 human casualties of this fire season. But the relatively low casualty count does not reflect the scale of the devastation. Never before in Australia have fires burnt so far, so fast, or for so long. By March, the fires had claimed 50 per cent more land than any previous fire season on record. These fires were epic on every scale. On 28 July 2020, the World Wide Fund for Nature released a report highlighting the toll of the 2019-20 bushfire season on Australia’s wildlife, describing the fires as “one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history”. It put the estimated number of animals killed or displaced at almost three billion – close to triple the original estimate.

In Australia, the fires represented an identity crisis as much as a humanitarian and ecological one. While fires are part of  Australia’s natural history and landscape, this season had a way of inverting many of the nation’s most treasured traits: as the fires multiplied into the thousands, Australians ceased to be, as per the national stereotype, laid-back and carefree.

With around 80 per cent of citizens affected in some way by the fires, trauma, sadness and anxiety were everywhere. In many places, they still are.

Most conflagrations in Australia are remembered by a single day – Ash Wednesday, Black Saturday – but Prime Minister Scott Morrison bestowed upon these fires an entire season: “Black Summer.” But even this stark moniker risks euphemism: the first fires of the season came unusually early, in September, the start of spring, after one of Australia’s driest and warmest winters ever. When the country’s driest spring on record followed, succeeded by the hottest ever December, the ground was laid for a summer like no other.


In it together: networks of wildlife rescuers and caregivers responded to the Australian bushfires. Credit: John Moore/Getty

As the season unfolded, the bush became a tinderbox waiting to burn, and beaches became evacuation centres, a more literal kind of “holiday escape”: the sea was the only safe place left to run to. In cities such as Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, sheltered from the fires, the air was the most toxic in the world for weeks. Suddenly, for millions of people, one of the least densely populated countries in the world – full of open space, bright light, fresh air – felt stifling and claustrophobic.

New South Wales (NSW), in the south-east of Australia and home to nearly a third of the country’s population, was the worst-affected state. It experienced more than 10,000 bush and grass fires, some of which merged and became “mega-blazes” that burned for several months. An average fire season in NSW affects 300,000 hectares; this summer, more than five million hectares burned. Hundreds of sacred indigenous sites were damaged, some destroyed.

In NSW, the worst of the fires were out by mid-February following heavy rains. (It wasn’t until 2 March that, for the first time in 240 days, not a single bushfire burned anywhere in the state.) Even then, the relief didn’t last long. The intensity of the downpour – the heaviest for 30 years – saw dams overwhelmed by flash floods that washed in ash and mud, ruining the water supplies of entire communities.

In the Bega Valley, a fire-ravaged region in south-east NSW, drinking water had to be trucked in. First fires, then floods, people joked – what next, a plague?

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In early February, when I visited Cobargo, a village in Bega Valley that was devastated by the fires over New Year, a wry, handwritten sign was tacked to the window of the local bookshop: “Post-apocalyptic fiction has been moved to current affairs.” The fires had flattened several of the surrounding shops and houses, leaving no more than piles of rubble. Cobargo looked like it had witnessed a war – and the town wore its wounds with a sense of pride and defiance, making it a rallying symbol nationwide.

But a month later, Australia’s traumatic entry into the new decade no longer distinguished it. A once-in-a-generation pandemic was sweeping the globe. When I showed photos of the Cobargo bookshop sign to friends in London, they assumed it referred to the virus: the post-apocalyptic feeling was universal.

For those hit by the fires, there was no time to take stock between the two crises. On 14 February, less than two weeks after NSW’s army of volunteer firefighters had brought the fires under control, Scott Morrison declared that Covid-19 was spreading from China and would become a pandemic.

In towns such as Cobargo, coronavirus delivered a cruel second blow. The community events and support initiatives that had bloomed after the fires – from relief centres to in-person therapy sessions – suddenly ceased. At a crucial moment, the comforts of human company and community were gone. The toll on mental health is expected to be severe. “It hasn’t been easy for people, everything stopping right at the point when they needed it most,” Cobargo resident David Newell, 54, told me over the phone in late May. In February, when I first met Newell, he told how he had helped fight the fires on his street with a bucket and hose. Australia’s firefighting service, which is mostly run by volunteers, often leaves rural communities to fend for themselves.

In the wake of the fires, Newell was working for the NSW government, travelling across the state to host town hall meetings in affected areas that doubled as communions of suffering. “Now everything has moved online,” he told me, “and we’re worried about people falling through the cracks. It’s different from gathering together face to face, in a shared place, sharing stories, and it means that some people are going to take longer to recover from the fires. The two [crises] have merged together.”

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Australia’s government coped well with the coronavirus crisis. Whereas the climate-sceptic prime minister’s handling of the bushfires was lazy, lumbering and ineffective, Morrison was bold and decisive in fighting the virus. He was one of the first national leaders to declare coronavirus a pandemic and the first, along with Italy, to ban travel from China. At the time of writing, the country has suffered fewer than 700 deaths – the majority of which are down to a spike in cases in Victoria.

A neoliberal conservative, Morrison also rushed through a remarkable relief package – doubling unemployment benefits, making childcare free, and subsidising millions of wages. Amounting to more than 10 per cent of national GDP, the scale of the stimulus package was second only to Qatar’s. “Today is not about ideologies,” Morrison said. “We checked those at the door.”

That Morrison bungled one crisis and then rose so assertively to a second is not ina coincidence. It could even be one of the fire season’s few positive side effects. After his popularity plummeted over the Australian summer, Morrison saw the coronavirus crisis as a chance to restore his authority. He seized it. The popularity of leaders across the world rose amid the pandemic – but none more than Morrison.

There were early hopes that Morrison might “leave ideology at the door” in tackling climate change. After the fires, support for climate change action reached a record high among Australians; it received more coverage than ever in Australia’s media, which is dominated by Rupert Murdoch-owned outlets, and support for building new coal mines fell among voters on both the left and right.

The pandemic opened up new opportunities. As heavy industry came to a halt, societies around the world saw that sudden, radical change was possible, and were shown the benefits that it could bring: cleaner air, quieter streets, healthier wildlife. Annual CO2 emissions are expected to fall by their greatest ever margin because of coronavirus, by about 5.5 per cent globally.

This reduction is far from enough – the world would need the equivalent of five pandemics in the next decade to keep warming to below 2C by the end of the century – but it’s a start.

Yet Morrison, who famously carried a lump of coal into parliament in 2017, mocking MPs who were “afraid” of fossil fuels, was always an unlikely advocate for the climate change cause. Any hopes of a climate transformation were over by the end of March 2020, when Morrison appointed his “National Covid-19 Coordination Commission” to spearhead Australia’s economic recovery. Almost half of the commission’s members have ties to the fossil fuel industry, and its executive chairman, Neville Power, is a titan of Australia’s mining sector.

Australia is already the world’s biggest exporter of coal and liquefied gas, with one of the highest greenhouse gas emission rates per capita. It plans to double its coal production by 2030, with more than 50 new coal mines under proposal. In the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index, Australia ranked last out of 57 countries for climate policy.

In August 2019, a group of low-lying Pacific nations, including Tonga, Fiji and Tuvalu, condemned Australia for its indifference to cutting emissions: you’re drowning us, they said. Michael McCormack, Morrison’s deputy prime minister, was unimpressed. “I get a little bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and saying we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive,” he said.

But the line between Australia and “those sorts of countries” is vanishingly thin. A report published earlier this year found that, based on current forecasts, Australia could lose more coastline than any other country in the world, amounting to about 40 per cent of its beaches over the next 80 years. On Torres Strait Islands, an archipelago that is part of Queensland in northern Australia, the effects of rising seas are already felt. “Communities are being submerged,” the mayor of the Torres Shire Council warned last year.

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Two hundred and fifty years ago, in 1770, British explorer and colonialist Captain James Cook landed on Torres Strait Islands to declare British sovereignty over the eastern part of Australia. Today, 91 per cent of the islands’ population are still indigenous inhabitants – compared to 3 per cent on mainland Australia – but many feel they are treated as second-class citizens. A team of islanders recently took a complaint to the United Nations, claiming their human rights are being violated by the federal government’s refusal to confront climate change. The UN Human Rights Committee will deliver a verdict in 2021.

Australia has always had an erratic climate, a natural effect of its topography: it is the flattest continent in the world and the largest island, surrounded by vast oceans on every side. “[The weather] is changeable beyond any other I ever heard of,” Watkin Tench, a British marine officer, observed after landing in Botany Bay, Sydney, in 1788.

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In recent decades, global warming has made Australia’s climate even more volatile. The country is on average 1˚C warmer than in 1900. Summers now effectively last one month longer than in the mid-1900s. Heatwaves and droughts have become more common and more intense, while rainfall, always unpredictable, has been in steady decline. Australia’s three driest winters have all happened in the last three years, and 2019 was the country’s hottest ever year. In mid-December 2019, Australia broke the record for its highest ever temperature (41.9˚C) twice in two days.

“I’ve often said that if you were looking to design a country that would be maximally impacted by climate change,” the climatologist Michael Mann told me in May, “Australia is the country you’d design. It’s centred right on the subtropics, it’s a large, relatively dry, hot continent – many parts are already on the threshold for no longer supporting human settlement. That’s why I think Australia has really felt the impact of climate change more profoundly than just about any other continent.”

Several studies specifically identified 2020 as a turning point. In 2008, for example, a government-commissioned report into climate change warned: “Fire seasons will start earlier, end later and be more intense. This effect increases over time but should be directly observable by 2020.”

But for a number of reasons – the influence of the Murdoch media, a powerful fossil fuel industry, and a lack of political leadership – successive governments have either failed or refused to respond to these warnings. As the satirical news website The Chaser put it earlier this year, mocking the Australian government’s faux-ignorance in the face of the latest fire season: “‘No one could have predicted this,’ says government warned about this in 1988, 1993, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.”

Mann is based at Pennsylvania State University, but he happened to be in Australia during the recent fires and became one of the most prominent experts during the crisis. “It was a coincidence – I arrived in Australia amidst these epic fires to start a sabbatical at the University of New South Wales, to study the link between climate change and extreme weather events,” he said. The irony wasn’t lost on him. “I’ve been studying and doing science related to climate change for decades. But it became real for me in a way it wasn’t, seeing it up close like that. It had a profound impact on me.”

Mann was struck by how, in some areas affected by the fires, insurance companies now refuse to renew policies for people who lost their homes and want to rebuild. “With climate change, there are real questions about whether some parts of the planet will become uninhabitable,” Mann said. “In a way, ‘uninsurability’ is sort of the initial stage of ‘uninhabitability’. It feels like we’re going through that stage in parts of Australia now.”

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On 29 April, as part of Morrison’s plans to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival, a replica of Cook’s ship the Endeavour was meant to circumnavigate Australia’s coastline. Some noted a dark irony when, because of coronavirus, the event was called off. The original British colonisation of Australia had coincided with the arrival of an infectious disease – smallpox – that killed thousands of Aboriginal people (some historians believe deliberately). Now, in a bleak echo, the kitsch re-enactment of that voyage was coinciding with another deadly virus: Covid-19.

British settlement was also when Australia’s experience of fire entered a new cycle. For tens of thousands of years, indigenous Australians had practised forms of “controlled burning” to cultivate the land and keep future fires from becoming too unruly. “The dexterity with which they manage so proverbially dangerous an agent as fire is indeed astonishing,” a member of Charles Darwin’s crew, John Lort Stokes, observed on an expedition to Australia in the 1830s.

But colonisers couldn’t fathom that they might have something to learn from “natives” and, in 1847, they banned “Aborigines and minors” – a telling conflation – from lighting any fires at all. Over the following centuries, attempts to domesticate and extract wealth from the Australian landscape through deforestation, the imposition of private property, and the genocide of indigenous Australians have exposed the country to an ever-more extreme climate. As temperatures rise, large parts of Australia are at risk of becoming too hot and dry for human habitation.

All this points to another sinister irony, threatening Australia’s future. When British colonisers first surveyed Australia in 1770, they declared it terra nullius – an uninhabited land, an empty territory. The colonial categorisation, which was law until 1992, wasn’t true at the time: indigenous Australians had lived on the land for longer than any human settlement anywhere on Earth.

But amid the drastic consequences of climate change, so abetted by the spread of capitalism and colonialism, terra nullius possesses the haunting potential of a curse, a self-fulfilling prophecy: Australia’s status as terra nullius could yet come true. And as this hostile future unfolds, it is the coronavirus pandemic, not Australia’s bushfires, that will start to seem small.

This article appears in the 11 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Saving Labour