Australia’s bushfires have exposed its leaders’ failings

Scott Morrison must face up to the challenge of climate change

 

A haze of smoke has made the skies over Bondi Beach look more like those in New Delhi. The death toll has risen. Bushfires have raged across Australia amid a heatwave that has sent temperatures soaring to record levels more common in the Middle East. The scale of the country’s wildfire emergency has few precedents. But it has been exacerbated by a regrettable lack of leadership from the prime minister, Scott Morrison. Beyond Australia’s shores, his government stands as a reproach to any leaders tempted to follow its lamentable response to the deepening threat of climate change.

Mr Morrison has long been a cheerful volunteer in the divisive climate battles that have ravaged the political landscape in Australia, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters. One of his predecessors, Tony Abbott, made history in 2014 by repealing a national carbon tax. Mr Morrison made international news himself in 2017 when as Treasurer, he brandished a lump of coal on the floor of the parliament to taunt critics he claimed had a “pathological fear” of the fuel.

He became prime minister last year after a coup in his centre-right Liberal party ousted the cosmopolitan former investment banker Malcolm Turnbull, whose agenda had included a greener energy policy. This year, Mr Morrison confounded expectations by leading his coalition government to yet another election victory, having campaigned in favour of a vast Queensland coal mine.

Against this background, when blazing bushfires broke out across eastern Australia, Mr Morrison stumbled. Eager to play down scientists’ warnings that a hotter, drier climate would help to make fires more frequent and intense, his ministers’ initial response to the fires smacked of politically calculated complacency. The deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, said Australia had endured fires “since time began” and victims did not need the “ravings” of “woke capital city greenies”. Two weeks ago, when Sydney was blanketed in a thick haze of smoke, Mr Morrison gave a press conference in the city where he appeared more eager to discuss a religious freedom bill than bushfires.

As the fires blazed on last week, Mr Morrison abruptly disappeared to parts unknown. “Where the bloody hell are you?” asked critics, using a campaign slogan commissioned when Mr Morrison ran the government’s Tourism Australia agency. Bizarrely, his office initially said reports he was on holiday in Hawaii were wrong. As anger surged over his absence, and two firefighters were killed, the prime minister broke cover to say he had indeed been in Hawaii but was coming home.

This sorry domestic spectacle has been compounded by Mr Morrison’s behaviour on the international stage. At UN climate talks in Madrid this month, his government was accused of trying to weaken rules for the 2015 Paris agreement and making feeble efforts to meet its emissions targets.

Mr Morrison often argues that Australia accounts for just 1.3 per cent of global carbon emissions. Setting aside the fact that its per capita emissions are among the world’s highest, it is true that cutting pollution in Australia alone would not physically prevent its bushfires, or the devastating floods and drought it has endured in recent times. Global warming requires a global response. But that response will never come if wealthy nations such as Australia continue to behave as if climate breakdown is a problem for others. Mr Morrison is now paying a political cost for his inaction. A far higher price will be paid in future for the bleak litany of climate failures his government represents.

 

The Financial Times Limited 2019 – Source

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