Australia’s Summer of Bushfire Disaster

Australia’s Summer of Bushfire Disaster

Australia’s current fire season is one for the history books. As of mid-January official estimates are that 17 million hectares has been burnt. 80% of the world renowned Blue Mountains and 50% of the Gondwana Rainforest world heritage area has been lost (though, in a rare good news story, groves of prehistoric-age Wollemi Pines have been saved thanks to a military-style operation). More than a billion animals have been killed, countless species pushed to the brink of extinction and a staggering level of biodiversity wiped out. Wildlife rescue crews going into burnt-out areas on recovery missions have reported horrifying scenes & apocalyptic conditions.

At least 28 lives have been lost. Thousands of homes have been destroyed & entire towns wiped off the map. Holiday-makers & locals all along the south-east coast of Australia were forced to leave or evacuate to beaches just after Christmas, and the biggest peacetime evacuation event in Australian history was required to rescue trapped residents of the isolated coastal town of Mallacoota, Victoria. Brave firefighting crews – many of whom are volunteers – worked without break from November until conditions eventually calmed down in mid-January. Firefighters – whether local or sent from overseas to assist – all report the same thing: this year’s fires are beyond what they’ve ever fought before, and that scares them.

As of mid-January insurance claims have already hit AU$1.3 billion, with some 190 post codes declared insurance disaster zones. Early, conservative estimates of the overall economic impact of the fires have come in at AU$5 billion, with the tourism industry alone suffering a AU$1 billion hit. Some economists believe the final figure will be somewhere in the order of AU$100 billion.

Smoke from the bushfires has had a crippling effect on Australia. At various points in time Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne have had the worst air quality of any global city, equivalent to its residents consuming multiple cigarettes per day. Smoke has forced the cancellation of national-level sports matches and forced tennis players at the Australian Open to retire due to coughing fits. The smoke plume has also created hazardous conditions in New Zealand, choking whole cities and turning the famous Franz Josef glacier brown.

Activity Rating: * Falling Behind


A kangaroo flees fires in Lake Conjola, New South Wales. This image was front page news across the globe. A firefighter & koala watch fires approaching a property in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia
A young kangaroo trapped in fencing burned alive as fires swept through Adelaide Hills, South Australia Tourists & locals shelter from approaching fires on the beach in Malua Bay, New South Wales
11 year-old Finn Burns steers his family’s boat away from the fires at Mallacoota, Victoria Smoke from Australia’s fires was clearly visible on satellite. The smoke plume has since travelled around the world and reached Australia from the other direction!

Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island, South Australia before the fire

Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island, South Australia after the fire


Warnings & Response

International economist Ross Garnaut warned in his 2008 Climate Change Review that Australia could expect catastrophic fire seasons by 2020 – an eerily accurate prediction. Since April 2019 a group of ex-emergency service leaders have tried to meet with Prime Minister Scott Morrison to warn him of the likely devastation this year’s fire season would bring. And it has recently been revealed the Department of Home Affairs refused to act on a climate risk action plan (including preparations for this year’s fire season) presented to them eighteen months ago. There have also been savage cuts to rural fire services by the NSW state government and no signals from the federal government that increased spending on firefighting resources is necessary.

In short, Australia was warned and did nothing to prepare. Worse, when the fires first began to take hold in November, senior Coalition MPs – including the Deputy PM – were quick to rubbish those making links between the fires and climate change.

The federal government’s response to the crisis has been universally panned. Scott Morrison was actually on holiday in Hawaii before being pressured to return. When he tried to tour fire-stricken areas he was heckled by locals, and his approval ratings took one of the biggest hits seen in Australian polling history. Morrison has given a series of defensive media interviews and angrily pushed back on any suggestions Australia should lift its climate ambitions, despite members of his own caucus and state Liberal politicians agitating for a recalibration of Australian climate policy in light of the bushfires. Morrison is now in danger of being seriously out-of-step with his own country, as key think-tank The Australia Institute recently reported that 79% of Australians are now concerned about climate change in the wake of the fires. And, international media outlets have looked on in a state of disbelief as they watch Australia cling to its coal exports in the face of such extreme, climate-fueled disasters.

Take Action

Message members of Scott Morrison’s party who have indicated they are ready to step up on climate change

Normally at Climate Scorecard I would write an action alert message addressed to one key politician. Today I am giving you a message to pass onto many politicians: members of Scott Morrison’s own party who have indicated they want Australia to lift its game on climate action, or members that represent electorates who are demanding more action. Now is the time for them to make their voices heard.

If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

These words now have special meaning in the wake of our devastating bushfires. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of destruction: humans & animals, built & natural environments, cities choked with smoke and ground to a halt. These fires have crippled Australia for months and left a legacy of pain. Our charred landscape may not recover in time for the next disaster, which is sure to hit sooner rather than later thanks to climate change. This is the moment where we realise how one disaster can bring the country to its knees, and questions like “how much will it cost to act on climate change?” become less and less relevant.

In years to come this will be remembered as the summer Australia lost its innocence, where our holidays and our carefree lifestyle were taken away. And it will happen again unless action is taken. I don’t want children’s memories of summer holidays to be cowering on piers and beaches as fires approach, or stuck in evacuation centres wearing face masks. They deserve the kind of childhood we used to have, before climate damage started to take hold. We can’t fix this overnight, and we might not be able to repair all the damage. But I certainly don’t want to have to explain to kids & grandkids why I didn’t respond faster to this summer’s events.

No matter how much spin you put on it, the federal government’s current climate ambitions are weak and the likelihood they will be achieved minimal – don’t even pretend this isn’t the case. Foreign nations and the international media look on bewildered as Australia insists it is doing its bit on climate. Our reputation is mud and our efforts to undermine the Paris Agreement have not gone unnoticed. Do we really think the international community will reach out to help such as a bad faith player when future climate disasters strike? Our behaviour and rhetoric is isolating, but climate change doesn’t respect that. It will hit us hard and leave us alone and bleeding. What a gift for future generations.

Luckily, solutions are there and ready. Net-zero emissions by 2050 are the aims of every state: why not simply scale that up to a federal level? Renewable energy is increasing its share of the power system, and could be leveraged into a boom export industry. Farmers are embracing low-carbon solutions in droves, and carbon farming is another boom industry waiting in the wings. Our action won’t be a cost or a burden: it will shape our nation and lift Australia to position of prominence in a low-carbon world. Seize the moment to protect & build.

This could be Australia’s watershed on climate action – do you have the courage to rise to the challenge?

Send the action alert message or post it on the Facebook page:

Tim Wilson, Member for Goldstein

Katie Allen, Member for Higgins

Jason Falinski, Member for Mackellar

Dave Sharma, Member for Wentworth

Trent Zimmerman, Member for North Sydney

Fiona Martin, Member for Reid

Josh Frydenberg, Member for Kooyong

Angie Bell, Member for Moncreiff

Read More:,13441


This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Australia Country Manager Julian Atchison

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