For the last three months, Australia has burned. Across four states, unstoppable fires exacerbated by climate change ravaged millions of hectares. Some fire fronts stretched across 600 miles. Temperatures exceeded 115°F.
Smoke choked Australia’s cities, and the Sydney Opera House disappeared behind a brown haze. Children wore face masks as the air quality deteriorated, leading to canceled sporting events and mail delivery in Canberra, Australia’s capital. At least 25 people died, and many remain missing, not to mention the more than a billion animals and plants incinerated. Thousands of people stood under blood-red skies on sandy beaches, awaiting rescue by Australia’s navy—the largest peacetime evacuation in the country’s history.
Christmas neared, the fires worsened, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who once flourished a lump of coal during a parliamentary session, relaxed at a beach bar in Hawaii. He explained his absence in the weakest terms: “I don’t hold a hose, mate,” he said. Less than two weeks later, he hosted a New Year’s Eve party at his mansion, watching the fireworks cascade into an ash-filled Sydney Harbor.
It was a fitting coda to a decade of climate apathy from Australia’s ruling class, a period when the country’s leaders went from being global crusaders to villains undermining the whole world’s future. With the help of a cadre of climate skeptics, Australia presented itself as far less capable than it actually is, advancing specious arguments about its international insignificance. Australia once aspired to moral and political leadership on the global stage: It helped end South African apartheid, mobilized the effort to protect Antarctica’s environment, and helped expand the G-20’s mission in the wake of the global financial crisis. But on climate change, it has dropped the ball.
It wasn’t always this way. In 2009 the country’s Labour government attempted to legislate a mechanism that, while not perfect, would have seen Australia’s CO2 emissions fall year after year. The bill enjoyed brief bipartisan support before Tony Abbott, a climate change denier, took control of the opposition Liberal Party, rejected the bill (along with Australia’s Greens, who insisted it didn’t go far enough), and began a four-year crusade against climate action. Abbott won the prime minister’s office in 2013, in part by promising to repeal Labour’s 2011 carbon tax—a proposal that, he falsely asserted, would deliver an annual A$550 windfall to every household in the country. His election marked the beginning of years of rising emissions under the Liberals’ conservative rule.
When Abbott’s popularity plummeted, he was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, who, in turn, was ousted by his party for his attempts to implement a mostly reasonable climate policy.
Morrison took the reins in 2018, casting himself as the voice of the “quiet Australians.” One of his first decisions as prime minister was to tear up the country’s only bipartisan road map for reducing carbon emissions. He’s argued against an electric vehicle policy and even ignored warnings about the dangers of the coming fire season.
Morrison’s complacency is rooted in an ideology that we might call Australian exemptionalism, the comforting fallacy that Australia is exempt from global responsibility on climate because it isn’t big enough to make a difference. It’s a belief manufactured by the climate deniers, who ignore Australia’s vulnerability even when crises occur. Because the country contributes “only” 1.3 percent of global emissions, they argue, it is statistically off the hook. And any progressive climate activism is derided, then weaponized to stoke economic anxieties.
This can only end poorly, for Australia and the world. Australia in particular can’t afford unchecked climate change. As droughts intensify, its capacity to produce enough food shrinks. As the Great Barrier Reef dies, its tourist appeal diminishes, and its coastal population is exposed to a dangerous sea-level rise.
What’s more, Australia has everything to gain from the opportunities presented by a carbon neutral world. It is richly endowed with resources like rare earth elements, lithium, iron ore, and cobalt—vital components in the manufacture of wind turbines, batteries, and solar panels. Its vast expanses are bathed in sunshine year round. A reasonable Australia would aspire to limitless clean energy, powering industry and creating high-wage jobs.
But these opportunities are merely inconvenient truths for the politicians who spent a decade belittling the need for climate action, many of whom are ultimately in the service of a coal and gas lobby whose members emit more carbon than Australia’s entire domestic economy.
Despite the raging fires, a change of course now by Australia’s conservative leaders remains improbable. To do so would be to confess that the past decade of climate inaction was a catastrophic miscalculation. So Morrison will keep leading a quiet Australia—a nation unwilling to step up to the challenges at hand, resistant to the opportunities of a decarbonized global economy, and voiceless on the burning issue of our time.