Future Tense

Australia Was Warned

The Australian government knew this fire season was coming—sooner rather than later.

People look as fire burns through trees.
Residents look on as flames burn through bush on Saturday in Lake Tabourie, Australia. Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

Australia is incandescent, and so are Australians. Conservative Prime Minister Scott “ScoMo” Morrison is being heckled as he visits fire-affected communities, with more than one victim refusing to shake his hand. Tens of thousands are expected to attend “Sack ScoMo” rallies across the country Friday, while one popular YouTuber is calling for the queen to do just that (technically, her representative can). A volunteer firefighter named Paul became the face of the fury when he yelled a message to a news crew from his firetruck window: “Are you from the media? Tell the prime minister to go and get fucked!” One of Paul’s fellow volunteers, standing by the road, later finished his message after he collapsed from exhaustion. “You don’t deserve to govern,” she told Morrison. “You knew this was coming, it’s been coming for years.”

The magnitude and gravity of these fires is unprecedented. More than 10 million hectares have burned, 14 times the area consumed by 2018 California wildfires. As of Thursday evening local time, 26 people are confirmed dead, more than 1,700 homes have been destroyed, and an estimated 1 billion animals have been killed (including approximately one-third of koalas in the state of New South Wales). Smoke from the fires, which can be seen from space, is blanketing the cities, causing air quality to reach 11 times the “hazardous” level, and even reaching South America. The fires have been raging since spring 2019, in every state, and are expected to continue for months. But this fire season has not come out of nowhere—it’s consistent with years of trends, anecdotes, studies, and climate modeling. A stubborn government refused to listen.

For more than a decade, scientists have been sounding the fire alarm, predicting increasingly dangerous bushfire seasons in the years ahead. Numerous studies have projected dramatic increases in the annual number of extreme fire weather days—despite Australia already being one of the most fire-prone regions in the world. In 2008, a major independent study into the impacts of climate change warned that Australian fire seasons would “start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense” in a way that should be “directly observable by 2020”—prescient words now being widely recirculated. Its recommendation, an emissions trading scheme, was widely opposed by the Morrison’s Liberal Party. (In Australia, the conservatives are known as the Liberals.)

In 2009, a CSIRO (Australia’s national science research agency) and Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre study warned that the kind of rare weather event fueling the current fires—a particular low-pressure system colliding with a particular high-pressure system—would be up to four times more likely under forecast climate change–related warming. That same year, a royal commission into the causes of the state of Victoria’s devastating Black Saturday bushfires, which killed 173 Victorians on and around one February day, alluded to the fact that bushfire risks were only likely to increase. On the 10th anniversary, former Victorian environment official Scott Hamilton was more blunt, predicting that climate change would deliver us more Black Saturdays. A 2017 Climate Council report found that climate change was increasing the severity and intensity of bushfires, while a 2019 report predicted they would cost the Australian economy billions over the coming years. The cost of the current fires is so far expected to exceed $4.4 billion. The CSIRO’s 2018 State of the Climate Report found that Australia’s climate had warmed by just over 1 degree Celsius since 1910, and projected a longer fire season in the south and east—the region now expected to be on fire for months.

Then there are the firefighters, who have been begging for assistance. The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported, “The nation’s aerial firefighting centre called four years ago for a ‘national large air-tanker’ fleet to confront a growing bushfire threat but was turned down in a federal government ruling that the task was one for the states.”

Two years later, in May 2018, the center called for an increase in funding to improve its aerial firefighting capacity. The federal government only agreed to that request last week, when the public was outraged and the fires burned out of control. As recently as early December, “demoralized” members of the firefighters union traveled to the capital to demand better resourcing for the season ahead, along with increased action on climate change. At the time, three-decade veteran and commander Mick Tisbury warned of worsening conditions, saying, “We are fearful of the fire season we are going to cop.” (That would be the fire season we are in right now.) In response, Scott Morrison said that the warnings were “very well known” to the government. Soon after, he took off for a Hawaiian holiday with his family, just as the crisis was beginning.

Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, a growing group of former emergency chiefs, has been sounding the climate alarm too. The group has called for “national firefighting assets” and first requested a meeting with Morrison in April. Now it has given up, opting to convene its own bushfire crisis summit instead. Former NSW fire commissioner Greg Mullins, who has been pleading for the government pay attention to the issue since 2006, is disappointed former fire chiefs weren’t listened to. “We actually predicted exactly what’s happening now,” he told the national broadcaster in November. “Measures could have been taken months ago to make the firefighters more effective and to make community safer.” Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action, a group of bushfire survivors, firefighters, and local councilors who have experienced the ferocity of recent bushfire seasons firsthand, have called in vain for greater action. But as its president, Jo Dodds, writes, nothing has changed. In fact, she says, members have been told to be quiet and remain calm, something akin to “gaslighting of the most cold-hearted and calculating kind.”

During the May 2019 election, then–Labor leader Bill Shorten proposed a national firefighting strategy. It included $80 million to establish a national water bomber fleet, to be paid for through closing tax loopholes for multinationals and the wealthy. Shorten famously lost that election. But Labor’s new leader, Anthony Albanese, spent his December out helping volunteers, while the ostensible prime minister disappeared to Hawaii. As Albanese told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “the tragedy of this is that it’s precisely the sort of predictions that were made by scientists.” Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews has reportedly been dreading and preparing for these fires ever since Black Saturday and, unlike Morrison, has been praised for his leadership through the crisis.

After the election, the Department of Home Affairs reportedly briefed the government that the country was set to face more frequent and severe bushfires as a result of climate change—and that “coordinated national action” was required to reduce the risk. But while $130 million was laid aside over the next five years to implement the “disaster risk reduction,” no changes were made to climate policy.

The fire themselves even warned us. They got off to a premature start this year—earlier even than Australian summer itself. Rainforests in Queensland, usually too wet to catch fire, burned for the first time ever. As if the preceding warnings hadn’t been enough, fires in spring and fires in the rainforest ought to have been an alarming omen of the horror to come.

For as long as climate change has been a major political issue, Australians have been aware that they will be among the worst affected. As author Richard Flanagan put it, the country is “ground zero for the climate catastrophe.” The Planning Institute of Australia, the national body representing urban and regional planners, has proposed a national settlement strategy, with large parts of Australia expected to become unlivable for humans, while the waters off Queensland are becoming unlivable for the Great Barrier Reef. Agriculture will have to dramatically adapt, with fish, beef, fruit, and wine production all expected to change, while Australians will face increased physical and mental health risks. The Victorian government is bracing for a deadly “one-in-110-years” heat wave in the next few years, with “severe” heat waves set to become the norm.

So what did the conservative Liberal Party, in power since 2013, do in response to these warnings? It has consistently opposed greater action on climate change, tearing down party leaders who so much as ponder stronger climate policy and pushing forward with new coal mines. The federal government has rejected motions for a climate emergency and in November threatened to outlaw climate change­–related boycotts, prompting outrage from free speech advocates. It has undermined efforts by the U.N. to lower emissions targets and continued to insist that the country is doing enough, despite recently being ranked the worst-performing country on climate change—or, as Ariel Bogle and Will Oremus once put it in Slate, the Saudi Arabia of the South Pacific.

A Greens senator has since labeled the major parties “arsonists” over the fires, a sentiment echoed by prominent Guardian cartoonist First Dog on the Moon. A Change.org petition is seeking to name the as-yet-unnamed fires “the Morrison Fires,” arguing the prime minister holds responsibility due to his failure to act.

But what could the government have done? As Australian conservatives often point out, the country only makes up a small fraction of global emissions, and it alone cannot stop the warming that exacerbates these conditions (although some global leadership wouldn’t hurt). But there are certain actions the Australian government could have taken to at least prepare for the fires, if it weren’t so hell-bent on burying its head in the increasingly dry sand. Instead of properly responding to demands for more resources, the NSW Liberal Party last year cut funding to fire services. (Some volunteer firefighters have resorted to fundraising for their own equipment.) Instead of addressing the initial fire threat, the prime minister offered some thoughts and prayers, then threw shakas on the beach in Hawaii. Instead of listening to the concerns of emergency services experts, the government dismissed them. Instead of taking the burgeoning crisis seriously, Morrison downplayed the catastrophe, tweeting about the cricket and pretending the disaster was not all that different to a usual bushfire season.

Until the crisis spiraled out of control over New Year’s, the prime minister attempted to wash his hands of the financing issue, insisting firefighting funding was the responsibility of the states—as recently as Dec. 29, he said he saw no further role for the federal government to play. It wasn’t until days of denials and dismissals that the government began to walk back its whitewashing and deployed the army—along with a tone-deaf, self-congratulatory ad spruiking its own efforts. The Australian Defence Association has criticized the ad, calling it a breach of the nonpartisan conventions, while others have called out Morrison for failing to consult firefighters. The Australian government has gone into damage control—both literally and metaphorically.

But even as he has finally stepped up efforts in facing and battling the blazes, Morrison has refused to face and battle climate change. Throughout the season, Morrison has continually defended Australia’s climate record and continued to rule out changes to Australia’s climate policies. While he has now tentatively admitted a link between the fires and climate change (contradicting other members of his party), he insists there are also other factors at play and denies the need for the government to increase its efforts. He has continued to dismiss international criticism as “not credible,” label calls to increase emission reductions targets “reckless,” and reject the idea of a fire summit. It’s not so much climate denial as climate dismissal.

Hindsight is 20/20, and 2020 has begun with a bitter dose of it. Australia is now suffering the devastating effects of a warning it ignored and, in some cases, continues to disregard. But it’s far from alone. The world is flooded with terrifying predictions regarding the future, with almost every day bringing a new study into the devastating impact even 2 degrees Celsius of warming will have.

We now have a serious example of what can happen to a country that fails to pay attention to the alarm bells—whether from scientists or firefighters, children or the planet itself. As it turns out, ignoring the climate crisis doesn’t make it go away. Australia may have failed to heed the warnings, but the rest of the world must now heed ours. Australia has been warmed, but we’ve all been warned.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.