No Smoke Without Fire: How Burning Coal Sent Australia up in Flames

Abby is a student at the University of Adelaide studying International Relations. Looking back at the issue of the Australian wildfires, Abby highlights the role of the government’s incompetence in bringing about the carnage.

My house was just 10km from where one of the fires burned in my state, not only was I witnessing the devastation through photos, videos and statistics; I could smell it.

I live in the Adelaide Hills, and it is lovely. I see wildlife daily, from kangaroos to kookaburras, the air is fresh and the sky is big. I can live a “rural” lifestyle but still be close to the city. But all this comes at a cost. I spent last summer glued to my phone awaiting news on the unfolding bushfires in my state and country. I was obsessed with statistics on how many animals had died, how many hectares were lost, the actions of the Good Samaritans and the scammers - the list goes on. I could not go out with friends without discussing our despair at the environmental impacts of the fires and our anger at the Morrison government. I will be honest, I cried a lot that summer, and I have cried a lot since. My house was just 10km from where one of the fires burned in my state, not only was I witnessing the devastation through photos, videos and statistics; I could smell it.

It is important to begin by mentioning that fire is not new to the Australian landscape, in fact, it has been part of it for 65 million years and has been used to manage the land by Indigenous Australians for 60,000 years. Fire is so intrinsic to the Australian environment that some plant seeds need fire for reproduction. Good fire regimes can enhance biodiversity. In that sense bushfires are not uncommon, however, climate change is creating conditions that cater perfectly to increased bushfire frequency, intensity and severity. More frequent winds, hotter and drier weather will mean bushfire seasons will get longer, decreasing time to manage fuel and mitigate risk. Frequent and severe bushfires leave less time and space for species in affected areas to recover. The 2019-2020 megafires were a “black swan” of a fire event, and predictably, have been linked to climate change.

I genuinely hoped the megafires would be a catalyst for change in federal and state environmental policy. How could it not? As expressed by a colleague, the megafires brought a visceral feeling of existential anxiety that climate change was no longer something we read about, but was here and was threatening. Somehow these widespread feelings did not translate to some of our leaders. Scott Morrison, our prime minister, at first refused to acknowledge that these fires were related to climate change (until it suited his image) and still has not been held accountable for his government’s mismanagement of the situation. Effective national climate and environmental policy have not been in the works since the megafires, even though we desperately need it. Bushfires like this will happen again, some already locked into place due to current emissions levels. This does not only affect Australia, but the world, as our bushfires mean a loss of CO2 sinks, increased CO2 levels and loss of important biodiversity on a massive scale. Our inadequate climate policy negates the efforts of those who are trying. These megafires are important to revisit as they remind us what a world without climate action could look like.

the megafires brought a visceral feeling of existential anxiety that climate change was no longer something we read about, but was here and was threatening.

All my hopes aside, I am not surprised at the lack of climate action since last year. Morrison’s government and previous governments have underplayed environmental issues, especially climate change. Environmental negligence can be seen when looking at Australia’s attempts to enact Emission Trading Schemes (ETS). Kevin Rudd partly won the election in 2007 due to his climate policy stance, which felt like a promising start to progress in reaching our emissions targets. Rudd proposed the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) which sought to limit the CO2 emissions from industry, but this was far from perfect. It faced a great backlash from the Coalition (opposition party) and environmental groups alike. The Coalition felt it did not protect businesses sufficiently from the economic losses it would cause, and the environmentalists rightly felt it would not reduce emissions to the levels needed to reach the country’s Kyoto Protocol targets. The CPRS was rejected by the Senate twice. The idea was shelved until 2012 when Julia Gillard proposed an improved, and seemingly effective, Carbon Pricing Scheme. This was actually enacted, that is until two years later, when the Coalition’s Tony Abbott became prime minister and repealed it. Abbott since stagnated climate change policy approaches, establishing the norm for years to come. Party politics and short term political gains were more important here than enacting genuine climate policy.

Prime minister Scott Morrison, then Treasurer, with a lump of coal in parliament

While this occurred over 10 years ago, climate change ignorance still permeates the Australian government. It was evident when Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament, waved it around and claimed other MPs feared it, embodying his continual prioritization of economic growth (through the mining and export of coal) over the environment. It is common sense to take care of the environment, even if we consider it an economic asset, so why does Australia have the worst climate change policy according to the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index?

In the 2018-2019 financial year, $1.9 million was donated to Australian political parties by the fossil fuel industry. This figure is thought to be even bigger due to discrepancies in donation disclosures between the parties and companies. It is in the interest of fossil fuel companies and the Mineral Council to keep environmental policy watered down, so as not to harm their business and assets. In the case that a party proposes a policy that goes against the interests of fossil fuel industries, they risk losing large donations which may hinder their return to power in the next election. The relations between these actors do not change overnight, which I believe is one of the many reasons why little climate change policy has been enacted since last year.

Despite this, it seems that progress in environmental management and policy has occurred at a state level. In a South Australian context, this is also true, the Department of Environment and Water (DEW) and the volunteer-based Country Fire Service (CFS) are doing a lot post-bushfire. The DEW mainly focuses on implementing plans and policy related to natural resource management in the State. The CFS handles anything from car crashes to bushfires that occur rurally. Since last year's fires, the DEW have created the Reserves of Dudley Peninsula Fire Management Plan 2020, among others, and the CFS have evaluated themselves in their annual report to see what needs to be improved for the next bushfire season. For example, the CFS describe the need to increase fire mitigation. Prescribed burns and hazard fuel reduction burns are an extremely important technique in decreasing bushfire risk. When interviewing a CFS volunteer, he described how this technique was taboo 7-8 years ago, as prescribed burns had got out of control and caused damage. It has since been recognised that fire mitigation through prescribed burns is essential (had they consulted indigenous groups, this may have been realized earlier). That said, the CFS firefighter said that when volunteering in other states, he noticed other fire services have to jump through more hoops to get approval for prescribed burns. Despite the proposed changes, nothing in the CFS report mentions climate change and accounting for it in their future endeavours.

The plans created by these organizations are difficult to implement and some recommendations will not be heeded. For example, the DEW deals with bushfire issues on public land, so it takes a significant amount of effort and money to contact private landowners and educate them about proper land management practices. There is a risk they may not follow through on recommendations. Furthermore, the efforts of state governments and state-based organisations can only go so far without sufficient federal support and funding, as disaster prevention and management requires collaboration at all levels of government. Months before the black summer fires, 22 former fire chiefs from New South Wales (NSW) wrote to Morrison asking to discuss bushfire prevention in light of climate change. They warned of the summer we saw and requested increased support for fire services. This obviously went in one ear and out the other. The federal government provides some support in clearing up the mess, but does not do enough to mitigate future risk.

The CFS annual report discussed how some goals would have to be tackled later than expected due to lack of funding because of the pandemic, however, this is not the first or last time funding has been and will be cut and stretched thin. Volunteers from South Australia were sent to NSW to fight fires in early December 2020, because of a lack of resources there. Hell, the fires were so out of control we needed international help. A classmate described how she had trouble evacuating from the fires near Adelaide as there were not enough volunteers to operate a fire truck to get to them. She ended up losing her house. With climate change, we are going to need more funding and more volunteers than ever, as our fire services are already stretched.

These disasters are not easy to respond to, despite all efforts. However, there is a difference between the efforts of firefighters and the likes of politicians. The CFS firefighter I spoke to had a family member’s funeral on the day the bushfire started near me. Afterwards he spent 13hrs straight from 4pm to 5am fighting the fire. He described firefighting like a war, the enemy being the quickly advancing fire, the smoke and the heat. He told me of some 20-30 dead koalas he saw scattered on the ground. The men and women at the CFS risked, and will continue risking, their lives to ensure everyone's safety. They are the ones conducting the prescribed burns and spreading essential bushfire knowledge. What was our prime minister doing at the time? Vacationing in Hawaii and telling us to watch the test cricket to “feel better.” It has certainly set the tone for climate policy in the past year.

The reasons why we need climate action are clear, but I want to tell you my personal (albeit selfish) reasons. I want to continue to see the biodiverse wildlife in the area around my house, to see the koalas in trees rather than dead on the ground. I do not want to see my classmates cry and yell in class when telling stories of how they lost everything they own. I want to feel safe. Unfortunately, these wishes are all a bit naive of me. I will say it a second time. Fires like this will happen again and they will affect everyone. Insufficient climate action will make Australia as charred and as black as Morrison’s beloved coal.

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