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Morrison's bush fire problem

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons.

Scott Morrison's Government has failed the environment, writes Binoy Kampmark.

THIS ISLAND CONTINENT is burning and its Prime Minister persists in fiddling. Despite making claims that action is being taken, Australia’s Scott Morrison is now facing differing views within his own party and increasing community resentment ahead of Christmas about dithering.

On matters of the environment, the report card is distinctly negative.  Non-government organisations such as Germanwatch have taken a dim view of Australia’s climate change measures.

That particular outfit is one of the authors of the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index, which examines the aggregated efforts of selected countries using 14 indicators within four categories: greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, energy use and climate policy. The generated rankings have Australia at a lowly sixth-worst of 57 countries. 

Sweden leads the field of good performers, followed by Denmark and Morocco. Saudi Arabia and the United States make up the last two positions.

On December 12, Morrison was asked about his impressions about the report.  “Wasn’t it,” it was posed, “an indictment on your Government’s response?” 

The answer was swift:

“No, I completely reject that report. We don’t accept that.” 

Morrison’s belief was that the report was “not credible”

When asked to recollect if he had ever seen Sydney enveloped in a smoke haze close to the density of the current crisis, Morrison deployed a familiar weapon in the climate change wars: suggest that it had all happened before and that humanity was born to fight the savage lot dealt it by Mother Nature. 

Morrison told reporters:

I do remember hazes from the past. I do remember Sydney being ringed by fire in my lifetime. I remember as a young fellow being down at the beach and seeing smoke all around as I looked back out from the surf across the sand and I’ve seen it before.

The Morrison rationale towards climate change policy is an ad man’s one. Avoid Australia’s role in producing carbon emissions because others do it so much better (or worse). There is no causation between climate change and bush fires because the quantum of contribution from Australian sources is bound to be minimal.  “Australia is 1.3 per cent of global emissions and in New South Wales I think it’s less than 0.5 per cent of emissions”. 

In sum, he says

Any suggestion that the actions of any state or any nation with a contribution to global emissions of that order is directly linked to any weather event, whether here in Australia or anywhere in the world, is just simply not true.

Policy adviser with Germanwatch Ursula Hagen had her own retort to Morrison’s repudiation:

With greenhouse gas per capita emissions of 21.1 tonnes, Australia ranks last for the indicator on current levels in the greenhouse gas emissions category.  Further, experts observe that the government is playing an increasingly regressive force in international negotiations. 

From the Pacific to Europe, Australia has minted itself as an exemplary force in internationalising climate change denial and disruption.

Despite the book-thick dossiers, reports and assessments, Morrison shows reluctance across the entire spectrum of environmental management.  Mining is sacred; measures to curb it, profane, if not criminal.  Bush fires are simply the manifestations of Nature and God; fighting them, voluntarily, has been an Australian forte that needs no correction.

When more assistance for combating Australia’s raging bushfires has been sought, Morrison has been resolute: the current forces are more than adequate. As 2,700 worn an exhausted firefighters were stretched in New South Wales alone, and Sydney’s air quality facing levels 12 times above the hazardous level, Morrison merely shrugged. They wanted “to be there”, unpaid, away from their work. 

The crews might be tired but:

They also want to be out there defending their communities.  And so we do all we can to rotate the shifts to give them those breaks but… in many cases you’ve got to hold them back to make sure they get that rest.

Stubborn and parochial, the Prime Minister insisted that one of the largest volunteer firefighting forces in the world should remain unprofessionalised. 

He said:

We are constantly looking at ways to better facilitate the volunteer effort, but to professionalise that at that scale is not a matter that has previously been accepted and it’s not currently under consideration by the Government.

Katharine Murphy, who regularly pens pieces on the subject of government indifference to climate change, sees the matter as one of priority and proportion.  For the Morrison Government, it was far more important in the period leading up to Christmas to worry about concessions regarding religious discrimination. The issue of a burning continent, its cities choked in smoke, was another matter. 

She has written:

“Dear Prime Minister. The country is not parched but desiccated and it is burning like a tinderbox, and people are frightened.”

Within the Liberal Party, the firm front of climate change denial, or modified, half-hearted acceptance, is cracking. NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean has come out of the climate change closet. 

Minister Kean remarked:

“We need to be doing our bit to make sure we mitigate or adapt to these extreme weather events happening and we do our bit to abate carbon and reduce the impact of climate change.” 

The federal environment minister Sussan Ley has similarly told ABC Radio Sydney that: 

“The dryness of the vegetation, particularly in the north of NSW, and the reduced streamflow is creating unprecedented [conditions].” 

The climate science had proven to be loud and violently clear.  Morrison’s resistance may eventually prove futile, even to his own ministers. 

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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