Australia’s fires have devastated millions of acres. What’s the political damage?

Australia has been burning for more than two months. Sobering images show summer vacationers sheltering from the flames while awaiting rescue, the burned wreckage of homes and businesses, and the charred bodies of kangaroos and koalas. The fires are leading to political controversy over the Australian government’s refusal to acknowledge the climate change threat — and what Australia should do about it.

Climate change has contributed to the devastation

Australia’s landmass is nearly the size of the contiguous United States, and fires this year have consumed some 25 million acres — slightly less than the size of Indiana, and far more acreage than the devastating fires in California or Brazil last year.

Some 25 people have died and more than 1,400 homes have burned in the Australian state of New South Wales alone. The bill for damage could be higher than $100 billion. As many as 1 billion animals have already died.

Fire is a normal occurrence in Australia’s dry summers, but this fire season has been abnormally dry and hot. Penrith, a suburb of Sydney, witnessed temperatures of 120 degrees (48.9 degrees Celsius) on Jan. 4.

Scientists say climate change is making the fire season longer and more severe. Australia’s average temperature in 2019 was already 2.74 degrees (1.52 degrees Celsius) above the long-term average from 1961 to 1990, and the impact on fire season is likely to get worse as the climate becomes hotter and drier — increasing the speed and intensity with which the landscape can burn. Some commentators have even raised concerns about whether parts of Australia can remain livable, suggesting the country is committing “climate suicide.”

The government is refusing to change course

One might expect that this would lead to the government taking action against global warming. That hasn’t happened.

Climate change has been extraordinarily contentious in Australia, which is very vulnerable to global warming, but is also the world’s leading exporter of coal, a high-carbon fuel. Fights over climate change have led to at least five leadership changes in governments of different political parties.

The country has veered from ambitious carbon taxes to current Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s refusal to prioritize climate change. Last Friday, thousands turned out in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and other cities to protest Morrison’s inaction on climate change.

Morrison took the Liberal Party’s reins after his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, tried to implement an emissions reduction policy. In 2017, he brandished a lump of coal on the floor of Australia’s Parliament to suggest this mineral wealth was good for Australia — and benign for the world.

When the fires escalated last month, Morrison was on vacation with his family in Hawaii, leading to public anger, particularly in hard-hit states such as New South Wales and Victoria. Anti-Morrison posters depict him in a floral shirt with the text: “MISSING. Your country is on fire.”

Morrison has responded by mobilizing more than 3,000 members of the Australian Defense Force, the largest peacetime deployment in the country’s history, and promised to spend more than $1.4 billion to prevent bush fires. He has visited affected areas, but the Australian media captured video of people affected by the fires confronting him over the government’s lack of preparation.

Morrison thought that his election victory had settled the climate fight

In the lead-up to the 2019 elections, polls showed that two-thirds of Australians saw climate change as the most important threat to Australia. However, Morrison’s party interpreted his victory as an endorsement of his pro-coal agenda.

However, political science research suggests people and media outlets who interpret electoral victories as policy mandates may be mistaken. Evidence from other countries shows voters don’t necessarily support the policy priorities of the leaders they elect. For example, Doug Ford swept into power in June 2018 in Ontario, Canada, after promising to kill the province’s carbon price. But a majority of Ontarians — including a large majority in his own district — supported the policy. If a climate opponent wins an election, that doesn’t necessarily mean voters support their approach to climate change — just that they prioritized other considerations at the ballot box.

Australian politicians may have made a similar mistake. Research in the United States suggests elites misperceive public opinion, in part because they are misled by special interest groups. The media also bears responsibility. In Australia, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. controls 58 percent of Australia’s newspaper circulation. Murdoch also owns Fox News in the United States.

Right-leaning politicians in Australia wrongly assume the public shares their anti-climate-change beliefs. Citizens are similarly mistaken: As in the United States, members of the Australian public underestimate the fraction of citizens who support pro-climate positions.

Will anything change?

Australian parties and voters have become more polarized over time, leading to wild swings in policy when government shifts hands. The Labor Party has pursued more climate-friendly policies while Morrison’s Liberal Party has been more hostile to climate action. Bad blood between Labor and the Australian Greens have complicated efforts to build durable climate policy.

Morrison has tried to claim Australia’s policies are consistent with climate protection, even though his government sought to use questionable carbon credits to meet its commitments under the 2015 Paris agreement. Although renewables are finally having some beneficial effects on the country’s emissions, Australia is still moving ahead with the construction of an enormous new coal mine in water-scarce Queensland.

Research shows lived experience with climate change has had, at best, mixed effects. It can mobilize people who are already sensitive to the climate threat — and there’s evidence this is happening in Australia. But direct experience is less likely to shift the views of intransigent climate opponents, including Australia’s current political leaders.

As a result, we aren’t likely to see meaningful changes in Australian climate policy until the next election, scheduled for 2022 — though the current government may try to improve its fire prevention record. Still, as the fires make climate change a more urgent priority for the public, Morrison may finally face a public reckoning on climate change.

Joshua Busby is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. Find him on Twitter @busbyj2. Matto Mildenberger is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His forthcoming book Carbon Captured (MIT Press, 2020) focuses on Australian climate politics. Find him on Twitter @mmildenberger

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