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Australian bushfires: The canary building the coal mine

Charli Shield
January 10, 2020

The world's biggest exporter of coal is engulfed in flames and Aussies are taking to the streets demanding action. Could this summer be the turning point for a notorious climate offender?

BG Waldbrände in Australien
Image: Reuters/AAP Image/D. Peled

As 2019 drew to a close, there were 12 houses on Jack Egan's street in North Rosedale in New South Wales. Today, only four remain. 

Egan, who has Rural Fire Service training, stayed to defend his home even after his neighbors heeded official warnings and evacuated. But once the "firestorm" rolled in from two directions on December 31st, it "went up like a torch," he told DW. 

Read more: Coal stokes Aussie bushfire rage

Egan says fire-ravaged streets like his look the same across the country: "There's the rubble of the houses, the corrugated iron from the roof collapsed on top of it, all the timber's been incinerated, the bush around is completely denuded and black."

As the Australian bushfires continue to savage towns and ecosystems, take human lives and kill billions of animals, environmentalists say one of the world's worst climate offenders has become a grave example of its impacts. 

"There's a white hot anger across our community," Egan, a support worker for the elderly, says. "Not so much about the drought and fire, but the lack of climate change action across decades."

Die Überreste des Hauses von  Jack Egan und Cath Bowdler nach den Bränden in Australien
Jack Egan in front of the post-fire wreckage of his home on New Year's DayImage: Jack Egan

Climate vs. coal 

On Friday, that anger spilled onto city streets from Sydney to Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Perth, with thousands of protestors demanding emissions cuts and an end to multi-billion dollar fossil fuel subsidies.

Read more: Australia: Bushfire crisis triggers mass protests

Australia is the world's biggest coal exporter. Last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government approved Adani's controversial Carmichael mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin, set to be one of the world's biggest coal mines. Another six coal mines in the area are awaiting approval.

Read more: Wildfires: Climate change and deforestation increase the global risk

The 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia last out of the 57 countries for its climate policy, describing Morrison's conservative government as a "regressive force."

Back in 2008, the Garnaut Climate Change Report predicted that without action on climate change, Australia would face earlier and more intense fire seasons by 2020.

While Morrison has been reluctant to admit a link between climate change and the current bushfires, for many that prediction appears to have been horribly realized. With two months of summer still to go in the southern hemisphere, authorities have already rated this fire season Australia's worst on record.

Climate protestors, Sidney, Australia
This is the first time bushfires have sparked significant nationwide climate protests in Australia, but it remains to be seen if public anger will spur actionImage: Reuters/P. Braven

Bhiamie Williamson, a researcher in indigenous governance and identity at the Australian National University in Canberra, points out that Australia is no stranger to fires. Whether the current protests are a turning point remains to be seen. 

"Australia is a country that's almost becoming accustomed to major natural disasters, and as yet none of them have galvanized people to action," Williamson said.

Nature and culture up in flames

One of the country's previous worst-ever natural disasters, the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, killed almost 200 people and burned through 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) following a severe heatwave.

Infographic: Australia's bushfires comparison by area

This season has already seen 10 million hectares (25 million acres) ablaze. While it hasn't taken as many human lives as the fires a decade ago (the current death toll is 27), ecologists estimate more than 1 billion animals have died. 

Read more: Australia to cull 10,000 camels with snipers amid drought concerns

Several species may now face extinction, and large swathes of rainforest and coastal ecosystems normally considered too wet to burn will take decades to regenerate — even if they are spared future fires.

Australian bushfires
Image: AFP/P. Parks
Koala being rescued by a firefighter
The fires have left species like the koala without enough habitat to rebuild decimated populationsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Mariuz

That's not to mention the enormous loss experienced by First Nations people, who have witnessed the destruction of ancient, sacred trees and sacred sites, and face the possible extinction of ancestral and totemic plants and animals that are deeply entwined with their cultural identity. 

Williamson, who is a member of the indigenous Euahlayi people, describes this as a "new trauma" for Aboriginal people, layered on top of the trauma of colonization and the ongoing "wilful ignoring of Indigenous people's land-management perspectives."

Crippling drought and lethal heat

The current bushfires follow unprecedented heat and drought. Australia had below average rainfall every month last year, and New South Wales — the hardest hit state on Australia's east coast — is in its 38th consecutive month of above average temperatures.

Polls suggest that most Australians see climate change as an urgent threat and want tougher government action. But Williamson says "understanding that and prioritizing it are two different things."

Right now, Williamson says questions "like 'how expensive is your electricity bill?' and 'what's the cost of living?' overwhelmingly define people's voting behaviors" — not climate policy.

Adani coal mine protestor, Australia
A protestor against the Adani coal mine makes a stark statement about Australia's political prioritiesImage: Getty Images/L. Maree Williams

Prime Minister Morrison, who at one point in the fire season left for a holiday in Hawaii, told Sydney radio 2GB on Friday, "We don't want job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals." 

It's not just the current government that has lagged on climate policy. "There hasn't been any government action for about three decades," Egan said. "It gets harder, more expensive and more damaging the longer we wait."

Both he and Williamson blame successive conservative governments for failing to heed warnings over the years. The 2014 administration even scrapped a carbon tax put in place by the previous government.

A warning to the world

Standing in the wreckage of the home he and his partner Cath Bowdler only recently finished renovating, Egan describes his country as "the canary in the burning coal mine." He hopes the rest of the world is watching.

Jack Egan's house in North Rosedale, Australia, before the bushfires
Image: Jack Egan
Jack Egan's house in NSW burns down on December 31
Jack Egan's newly renovated home before the fire and on New Year's EveImage: Jack Egan

Read more: My Australian paradise lost

"Look what has happened to us," he says. "We're the early victims here, but this will happen to you. We don't want it to happen to you, but the only way we can prevent it is for us to cooperate on effective climate action policies."

"It's time to get out of the coal mine," Egan warns.