Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison recently traveled to New South Wales where dangerous wild fires the size of Switzerland are burning out of control. Morrison was approached by a local resident who harshly criticized his lack of a national policy to reduce the country’s carbon emissions that are directly linked to climate change-induced wild fires, severe droughts and record high temperatures. In a widely televised news clip, the resident admonished the Prime Minister, “You won’t be getting my vote down here, buddy. You’re out, son.”
Morrison, a climate change denier, famously brought a lump of coal to parliament to brag about Australia’s coal mining industry and accuse the opposition Labour Party of “coalophobia.”
Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, an industry worth $70 billion. Seventy-five percent of coal mined in Australia is exported. Its biggest markets in order of size are China, Japan, India, Korea and Taiwan that rely on coal as the principal fuel to generate electricity in Asia.
Seventy-four percent of Australia’s own electric power plants run on coal, the fuel that produces the most heat trapping carbon in the planet’s atmosphere. This compares with 2% of electricity generated from coal in the United Kingdom and 27% in the US. By 2025 the few remaining coal plants in the UK will be closed.
In the US, half of the 500 coal-burning power plants have been shut down. In 1997 the US relied on coal-fired generating plants for 53% of its electricity compared to only 27% in 2018. Most have been converted to natural-gas-burning power plants. The value of stock shares of US coal companies has plunged, and banks won’t provide loans for construction of new coal-fired power plants.
Australia’s power grid depends on 19% zero carbon energy sources compared to 48% in the UK and 16% in the US. Zero carbon categories are hydro and nuclear, but those sectors have not seen any recent growth in the US. The zero carbon renewable power sources, wind and solar, have grown exponentially.
Australians overwhelmingly view climate change as a critical threat. More than 60% favor policies to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that heat the planet.
At the December UN COP25 climate conference in Madrid, the main goal was for the rich, industrialized countries, who contribute the most to greenhouse emissions, to take the lead to negotiate an agreement to meet the commitments made in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord to keep warming well below a 2 Celsius degree level. In Madrid, Australia joined the US and Saudi Arabia as the biggest obstructionists to any meaningful climate negotiations.
The small island developing states that dot the Pacific Ocean, met at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu in August of 2019. The former Prime Minister of Tuvalu, a small atoll country that may be the most threatened by sea level rise, said he was “stunned” by Scott Morrison’s dismissive comments about the concerns of the Pacific countries regarding the climate crisis.
The Prime Minister of Fiji asked the Australian representatives to transition away from coal, the fossil fuel that emits the greatest amount of carbon per kilowatt of energy produced in electric power plants. He said Australia’s continued building of coal-fired plants and mining of coal for domestic and export markets was creating an existential threat to the small Pacific island nations. Many small island countries are threatened with being swallowed up by rising oceans during this century from climate change. Excessive heat from the greenhouse effect warms the oceans, causing sea water to expand and the world’s great ice sheets are melting at an alarming rate, the water flowing into the sea.
The Australian delegates to the Pacific Islands Forum tried to suppress any references to the critical IPCC 1.5-degree Celsius warming level that scientists say is a dangerous tipping point. They refused to make national commitments for carbon neutrality, a ban on new coal-fired power plants and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies. Neighboring New Zealand, however, did announce that it was committing the country to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.
Morrison’s center-right Liberal Party won a majority in Parliament last May with a Trump-like platform that was tough on immigration, favored tax cuts and had no program to reign in carbon emissions, especially from coal. As a climate change denier, Morrison and his party will have to reckon with voters who live in a country that is being ravaged by wild fires on a scale and intensity the continent has never seen.
About 16 million acres have burned across Australia during the past four months. leaving only miles of charred wastelands in what was pristine forests and national parks. No region in Australia has escaped the inferno with more than 100 fires raging across every state on the continent. New South Wales and the neighboring state of Victoria were hit the worse.
Since September the fires have killed 23 and destroyed 1,300 homes. Thousand have fled the inferno, escaping to the beaches on the coast of Victoria about 300 miles east of Melbourne where they wait to be rescued by the Australian navy.
The temperatures hit 104 F in several areas and topped at a frightening 120 F in a few locations. The summer temperature peak has not yet arrived. The New York Times reported that “this year’s fire season has either killed or badly injured 480 million animals, including bird, mammals and reptiles.” Koalas have lost a quarter of their population. Seal and Penguin colonies on Kangaroo Island are at risk of complete annihilation.
The New York Times interviewed researcher, Jim Radford of La Trobe University in Melbourne. “Because the fires this season have been so intense and consumed wetlands as well as dry eucalyptus forests, there are few places many of these animals could seek refuge,” Radford said. “We’ve never seen fires like this, not to this extent all at once, and the reservoir of animals that could come and repopulate the areas, they may not be there.”
Winds that exceed 80 mph are spreading the fire so quickly that many residents are caught unexpectedly with fires raging around their homes and must flee for their lives at a moment’s notice. Fire quenching rains are a month away. Experts predict that the worst is yet to come.
Record levels of drought and scorching temperatures have created a tinderbox across the Australian continent. These conditions are a direct result of the heat trapping greenhouse effect, mainly from carbon that is emitted from the burning of coal. Australia’s policy that relies on coal as its main power source and its coal exports to countries across Asia are directly contributing to its own man-made climate catastrophe.