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Bushfires spark Australian debate about climate change

Devastating bushfires which ravaged Australia through the latter stage of 2019 and first months of 2020 have sparked a debate in the country about the extent of the damage that could be done by climate change and the role that the island nation’s huge coal industry plays in perpetuating the issue. Scientists have long warned that a warming planet would lead to Australia’s bushfires becoming bigger, harder to fight, longer lasting, and more frequent.


33 people and over a billion animals died in the huge fires that swept much of the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales from October through January. The fires followed a long drought due to a lack of rainfall, leaving the ground around Australia’s dense forests and jungles dry and hot, like a giant tinderbox. For the last few weeks the country has been struck by the opposite problem, with huge rainfall causing heavy flooding in the east coast states of Victoria and Queensland.


Climate change has always been a difficult political issue in Australia, and has been at least a contributing factor in the downfall of four prime ministers. The most recent victim of Australia’s climate change division, Malcolm Turnbull, faced a leadership challenge after proposing an energy package that attempted to balance lower energy costs with tackling climate change - a compromise that some hardliners in his party, including his predecessor Tony Abbott, couldn’t stomach

Australia’s debate

Australia’s toxic climate change debate has only been worsened by the bushfires, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison doggedly refusing to accept that climate change played a role. The debate is complicated by Australia’s heavy economic reliance on the coal industry which is the country’s second highest income generator after iron ore, raising 60 billion Australian dollars every year. Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal, with the fuel source sitting second alongside iron and gold as the country’s top three exports - a fact that sits uncomfortably when juxtaposed with its unique vulnerability to climate change.


Given its location in the world, Australia has many hot climates and is always susceptible to bushfires - even small shifts in temperatures can make these fires burn out of control, as was seen over the summer. Australia’s tourist industry is also reliant on the Great Barrier Reef - a natural wonder, the existence of which is currently under huge threat due to warming seas. This is also posing a huge risk to the ecosystem around the coast of Queensland which depends heavily on dying coral reef.


While the bushfires have reignited the debate over whether Australia should be doing more to combat climate change, it has not fundamentally shifted the nature of it. Those who opposed action before the blazes - especially the prime minister - continue to oppose action. The coal industry continues to be something of a point of pride to Australians, and its economic role has led to a reluctance to put it at risk in order to reduce carbon emissions. The issue may be back at the top of the agenda - exacerbated once more by the floods - but retains its unique sting among issues in Australia’s politics.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 21, 2020 1:19 pm GMT

Australia’s toxic climate change debate has only been worsened by the bushfires, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison doggedly refusing to accept that climate change played a role.

A common assumption is that once people see the visible/tangible effects of climate change, those who deny the science will come around-- but this demonstrates a big fear I have in that people will only dig their heels into their opinions and refuse to admit ever they were wrong. The politicization of a debate that really is based on science, not policy positions, is so dangerous

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