The bushfires in Australia have been a tragic and ominous start to the new decade. Air quality in the capital Canberra is now the poorest in the world, while visibility in Melbourne has become less than 1km. Across the country and beyond the colour of the sky became an eerie yellow-orange, even as far away as New Zealand.
Over 12 million acres of wildland has been destroyed, threatening the future of koalas, kangaroos, rare birds and other species.
On top of the destruction of carbon-storing trees, emissions from the devastation is estimated to already be the equivalent of up to two-thirds of Australia’s annual emissions.
Meanwhile, as their country burns, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government have been on a bit of a journey in recent months.
After all, it was only in November that Morrison’s deputy Michael McCormack called those calling for action on climate change “pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies” and “inner-city raving lunatics”.
At Christmas, as the fires raged, Morrison said linking them to climate change was not “credible”.
In fact, it has been his own lack of credibility that has been exposed.
Twenty-three senior fire and emergency service leaders from across Australia are uniting to call for urgent action on climate change. The chair of the group has said extra resources are now coming from the federal government, but they were refused when a request was first made in April.
“The fires are still burning, and they will be burning for months to come,” Morrison admitted at the weekend.
But even after finally acknowledging global climate change on the 2 January, Morrison reiterated he has no plans to change Australia’s emissions reduction policy, one that tolerates not only oil and gas expansion but a growth of coal exports.
This is grossly irresponsible. Australia has sent in the army reserves to deal with this crisis. Morrison’s government has already pledged $2bn to pay for the recovery, a figure which will surely be much, much higher.
Scott Morrison should know now, more than any other world leader, the cost of not tackling the climate emergency. Yet he advocates the business-as-usual politics which fails to do anything about it. This is an abdication of responsibility, and a profound failure of leadership.
The Scottish and UK Governments cannot hold a moral high ground here. Yes, they are much better than Scott Morrison at recognising the climate emergency exists, but where is the radical plan of action to do anything about it?
Against all the scientific evidence which gives us ten years to control global warming, the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP and Lib Dems all support continued subsidy of exploration of new fossil fuel reserves to guarantee an indefinite supply of petrol, diesel and plastic.
If the bushfires in Australia cannot wake these parties up, what will? Time is running out and we cannot afford to ignore this crisis. This is the year that Scotland hosts the UN climate change talks, and it will be with a great sense of shame if we can’t wake up to the reality of what is needed by then.