The Politics of Climate Change After Australian Bushfires

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On our last day here in Australia, we traveled to the
country’s capital city of Canberra. 

This city is home to Parliament House and Prime Minister
Scott Morrison, who has been facing intense criticism for his handling of the
bush fires that have been scorching the country and his views on climate
change.

Twelve days ago, tens of thousands rallied across nine
cities – from Sydney to Brisbane to Melbourne to Perth – protesting the climate
change policies of the current government. 
Those rallies were met with support from climate change activists across
Europe. Rallies in London, Madrid, Berlin, Copenhagen and Stockholm demanded
immediate climate action.

And early next month, another large rally is being planned
right here – outside of Parliament House.

“I think what’s happening in Australia is that there’s a lot
more concern about climate change,” David Holmes says.  He’s the Director of Climate Change
Communication at Monash University in Melbourne.

“2019 was the warmest year on record in Australia, as well
as the driest.   Those signals are there
to say that more needs to be done on policy.”

But much like in the United States, climate action has been
largely paralyzed by the influence of fossil fuel companies.

“The fossil fuel industry is a big part of Australia’s
economy and the extractive industry is really big, so the government is often
walking this sort of tightrope between listening to people’s concern but also
thinking about am I doing the right thing for the economy.”

“I think it’s been made political by lobby groups that have
been made for keeping things as they are. Business as usual.”

Noted American climate scientist, Dr. Michael Mann,
agrees.  He’s staying near Sydney on
sabbatical while actively engaging the climate conversation.

“Australia, which historically has not been aligned with
those sort of climate-change-denying petro states, finds itself currently with
a prime minister who has sided with other climate denialists,” Mann says. 

“At the recent Madrid climate summit, Australia did throw a
monkey wrench into the works by saying they wouldn’t really honor their past
obligations.  We need the U.S. and
Australia and all of the players to come to the table if we’re going to solve
this problem.”

The media landscape has only muddied the water. 

“There’s quite a strong climate denial lobby group here,”
Holmes admits.  “The media is a bit divided.
The newspaper groups are questioning whether climate change exists and really
throwing a lot of doubt.  Ultimately, you
aren’t protecting the population of your country as long as those stories
become dominant.”

For Mogo resident Rae Harvey, there is no denying what her
own eyes have seen.  Her kangaroo
sanctuary was razed by the fires here on New Year’s Eve.

“This wasn’t an ordinary fire.  This was a climate change disaster,” she
says.  “Climate change is real.  Everybody that’s denying it, stands to make a
profit from it.  Isn’t that obvious?  I don’t stand to make a profit from it.  I’m just a victim of it.”

Harvey will rebuild her sanctuary but will also join in
pressuring Australia for action.

“And keep spreading the word about climate change and trying
to convince our crazy politicians that it is real.”

The fires here are still burning as a daily reminder.  A new blaze erupted near the Canberra
airport.  This crisis has already claimed
28 lives, millions of acres and a billion animals.  It may get a lot worse.

“We’re only 55 days into these fires.  We’re just over halfway through summer.  The really bad fires have historically hit in
Australia in February.”

Holmes believes the solution to Australia’s crisis is a
commitment to renewable energy.

“What we have an abundance of is a lot of wind and a lot of
sunshine,” he says.  “We could really be
a renewable super power.  We could
actually be exporting renewable energy to Asia. 
We have that much sunshine in this country.”

So is the conversation changing?

“I think it’s still a case of wait and see.  Some people are calling the fires this
turning point, this crossroads where something has to be done,” Holmes says.  “Some people don’t want to hear change.”

Mann is more optimistic.

 “This may be a tipping
point,” Mann hopes.  “Where the impacts
have become so pervasive and have played out so vividly on their television
screens – these almost apocalyptic wildfires. 
There’s a level of awareness here about climate change that I think is
unprecedented.”

Solutions exist to address climate change both here and
globally, but those face the ever-present roadblock of lack of political will.

“That requires voters,” Mann says.  “Voting for politicians who are actually
willing to do something about this problem – leaders who are actually willing
to lead on climate.”


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