Australian Wildfires: One Year On and Nothing Has Changed

As featured in Edition 37, available here.


By GEORGINA MILNER

In 2019 over 60% of the Australian public were recorded to believe that global warming is a serious and pressing problem and that the government should begin taking steps now, even if this involves significant costs. As such, it came as a major surprise when, in what was dubbed ‘the climate election’ in 2019, Australia re-elected a Liberal-led centre-right coalition headed by Scott Morrison, instead of the expected mandate to be handed to the Labor Party to pursue its ambitious targets for pursuing renewable energy and cutting emissions.


But after nearly 80% of Australians were affected in some way by the wildfires at the beginning of 2020, and public support for new coal mines continually decreases, even amongst conservative coalition voters, according to a poll conducted by the Australian National University (ANU), Morrison’s right-wing apathy towards climate change and its severe consequences for Australia’s population and natural environment is viewed increasingly as unfavourable.


A year on from the wildfires that ravaged Australia, Morrison’s government has slightly altered their climate change rhetoric, but in terms of their actions, very little has changed. Even this minor change is likely due to the anticipation of the success of now President-elect Joe Biden, rather than a response to the shift in popular opinion of Australian citizens towards climate change. This move was similarly made by China, Japan, and South Korea, all of which adopted pledges of nearing net-zero emissions in the lead up to the USA’s presidential election.


It is hardly a coincidence that from the moment Biden was predicted to be the winner, Morrison’s rhetoric around climate change became noticeably more progressive, saying that Australia wants to “reach net zero emissions as quickly as possible”. Whether these promises will be fulfilled in the remaining years of Morrison’s administration is still to be seen, but based on their history and lack of present-day action, any significant change and improvement to Australia’s climate crisis seems highly unlikely.


The Coalition’s history offers little encouragement. The former Liberal-led coalition government, headed by Tony Abbott, repealed Labor’s carbon price, attempted to gut the Renewable Energy Target, and abolished agencies pushing for a transition to low-emissions energy. Morrison himself while Treasurer told his opponents not to be ‘scared’ whilst brandishing a lump of coal in Parliament given to him by the CEO of the Minerals Council, and has consistently backed fossil fuel companies ahead of renewables.


For the majority of the last year, the coalition government has ignored persistent entreaties from environmentalists, scientists, and major businesses to adopt a more progressive approach to environmental policy and to commit to a target of net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. The Coalition has also refused plans which aim to utilise Australia’s economic recovery following Covid-19 to promote and cement the transition to low emissions and sustainability.


Instead, Morrison has committed to a programme of “gas-fired recovery”, doubling down on fossil fuels in Australia. Whilst not quite as dangerous as coal extraction, of which Australia is the world’s second-largest exporter for power usage, the Government aims to lock in the architecture for fossil fuel extraction for decades to come, rather than pivot away from coal. Regardless of the social and environmental costs, the goal is to squeeze as much profit from the dying industry as possible. Although continual fossil fuel extraction may boost Australia’s economy in the short-term, it will only harm it in the future, as the fossil fuel market will eventually disappear, harming economies that remain rooted in its exportation.


Whilst Morrison claims Australia is “meeting and beating” their emissions targets, he is using statistics and goals which are fundamentally flawed, and fossil fuel emissions, the primary driver of the climate crisis, have continued to rise. Morrison also falsely claims Australia is leading the world on renewable energy, even though spending on clean power fell by 56% last year. The coalition government under Abbott pledged a 26%-28% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 in the Paris agreement, however department data suggests national emissions will only be 16% below 2005 levels by 2030, short of the minimum 26% goal, and well short of the 45-63% coal scientists actually recommended Australia commit to. Instead, they pat themselves on the back for ‘beating’ the most minimal of its targets from the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.


If even the devastating wildfires, still scarring Australia’s recent memory, could not prompt Scott Morrison to change his rhetoric around climate disaster, it is very unlikely that anything will prompt him to change his actions.


Image: Flickr (Stephen Hass)