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DAN LEGER: Australian bushfires hold lessons for the whole world


Aussie PM Morrison denies link between climate policies, devastating fires

Australia is so vast that even Canadians struggle to comprehend the scale of the disaster unfolding there now. Think Fort McMurray in 2016, only monstrously larger and with no end in sight.

The Fort McMurray fires burned 589,000 hectares and caused $11 billion in damage with an epic firefighting battle that transfixed the country. Australia’s bushfires are on another scale entirely.

Fires are burning in every state, already destroying 5.9 million hectares or 15 million acres. As of this writing, 19 people have died and 1,400 homes destroyed, with more of both expected. In New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state with Toronto-sized Sydney in its centre, 3.6 million hectares have burned and a state of emergency is in force.

The fires are so big and widespread that smoke dims the sun over much of the country. It’s estimated that 450 million wild animals have perished. Mandatory mass evacuations of communities have been ordered in many areas and the Australian navy is rescuing people from burning shorelines.

Bushfires aren’t new in Australia. In 2009, they killed 175 people and caused massive property damage. The current fires are worse by almost every measure.

There hasn’t been proper rain anywhere in Australia since 2017 and none is expected for months. Rivers are drying up and the grasslands are parched. With summer temperatures at all-time highs, the entire continent is a tinderbox.

But Australia’s problem isn’t the weather. It’s the climate, which is changing for the worse. The ongoing heat wave has been relentless and record setting. Even the ocean around Australia is warmer than has ever been recorded.

Inevitably, Aussies are asking whether their government has done enough, or actually anything, to prevent the fires, beyond fighting them after the fact.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a conservative who ignited public fury by vacationing in verdant Hawaii while fires burned at home, is no fan of climate science. He calls the fires routine and refuses to see any link between his government’s pro-coal policies and the continent burning around it.

Australia is one of the world’s largest coal producers, with $61 billion in annual exports. That means jobs, votes and corporate cash for Morrison’s party.

He argues that because Australia only produces one per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, there’s no point developing policies to reduce them. His government axed some preliminary climate programs.

If Morrison’s arguments sound familiar, that’s because they’re precisely those of the Canadian denial caucus: climate change isn’t real but if it is real, it’s not human-made. Even if it is real and caused by humans, they say, Canada is too small to reverse it and therefore we should do nothing.

Morrison, an anti-immigration populist, is an unabashed fan of the world’s foremost climate science denier, Donald Trump. The U.S. president has lavished praise on Morrison, hosted him at a rare state dinner at the White House and even asked him for help digging up dirt on Joe Biden.

Now Morrison, re-elected only last May, finds himself in political hot water at home. Cameras captured angry people in fire-struck rural areas refusing to shake the prime minister’s hand and hurling ripe Aussie profanities as he scarpered to his luxury SUV.

Still, Morrison can’t make the connection between coal and fire, claiming that no “single policy, climate or otherwise" could have prevented the disaster.

This is deceptive and dangerous. No one believes any “single policy” will stave off catastrophic changes in the global climate. Fighting climate change requires a whole range of actions from governments, corporations and the global public.

When it doesn’t rain for years amid persistent record high temperatures, that’s not weather. It’s climate. And while you can’t draw a direct line, yet, linking coal, greenhouse emissions and the Australian fires, ignoring the possibility amounts to criminal negligence.

It’s time for climate change deniers, like Morrison and too many Canadians, finally to wake up and smell the smoke.

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