With more than 14 million acres in Australia blackened by bushfires, climate change is a glaring threat to Australians — and to the standing of their prime minister, Scott Morrison.
Distressed residents in fire-ravaged towns have rebuffed his handshakes and heckled his entourage. The nation’s capital, Canberra, rang in 2020 with the world’s worst air quality. Beach evacuations of stranded residents cornered between flames and sea now rank as Australia’s largest-ever peacetime maritime rescue operation.
U.S. firefighters feel kinship with their Australian brothers and sisters, and more than 100 have been dispatched to battle the blazes Down Under. While Americans are no strangers to wildfires, Washington would do well to note how Australia’s climate policies are entwined with this current crisis.
In 2000, an Australian parliamentary committee report acknowledged the country’s per capita carbon emissions were the highest in the world and highlighted the country’s acute climatic vulnerability. A 2013 report by the Climate Council, an independent Australian nonprofit, pointed to the increasing likelihood of high fire danger weather due to spiking temperatures, drought conditions and longer and more frequent heat waves.
And in a November poll, 60 percent of Australians said they believed the country should be doing more to combat climate change. But Australia’s reigning politicians have been deaf to these signals.
Morrison gleefully wielded a fist-sized chunk of coal on the floor of Parliament in 2017. A year and a half later, his right-wing party — incensed over proposed legislation that would have instituted energy sector emissions targets — ousted his predecessor and made fossil-fuel-friendly Morrison head of state.
Australian journalist Hugh Riminton has lamented the coal lobby’s grip on Canberra, calling his country “a burning nation led by cowards.” Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan compared the rabid bushfires to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster — another environmental catastrophe that foretold the demise of the existing, untenable political order — and likened Morrison and his “criminal course of inaction” to the decadent and disconnected Roman emperor Nero, who is famously said to have played a fiddle while flames leveled most of ancient Rome.
These domestic denunciations square with the persistent criticism of Australia from its regional neighbors. Pacific island countries are markedly vulnerable to climate change on account of sea level rise, ecosystem collapse due to ocean acidification and coral bleaching, and saltwater contamination of freshwater wells.
“No leader who claims Christian morality can allow this conduct on their watch,” Rev. James Bhagwan wrote. Present U.S. policy could benefit from such soul-searching. The White House’s abandonment of emissions targets demonstrate either complete obliviousness or categorical insensitivity to those affected by climate change.
Climate policy negligence will also undermine U.S. relations with Pacific island states.
American climate policy requires a course correction, or it’s only a matter of time until the U.S. is pilloried in the strategically essential Pacific, leaving an influence vacuum for opportunistic Beijing. China is all too happy to tout itself as one of the first countries to sign the Paris agreement and to reiterate its pledge of stabilizing its carbon emissions over the next decade.
A heart-wrenching image of a charred juvenile kangaroo trapped against barbed wire captured the devastation of Australia’s bushfires and the bitterness of climate inaction. Distraught onlookers around the world took note. We can only hope that U.S. leaders did too.
Evan Karlik is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy and an affiliate at Georgetown University’s Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies. In 2018 he served as a defense fellow in the House of Representatives.