The Hottest Day on Earth: the Politics of Australia’s Bushfires

Just before Christmas and in excessive secret, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, known as Scomo, tried to escape the nightmare of bushfires he left behind. Scomo flew 8,000km to Hawaii. Meanwhile the bush firestorm was ravaging Australia. Unforeseen by Scomo and his entourage, a Facebook storm was also ravaging his approval ratings. Hence, reluctantly and perhaps on the advice of his political spin-doctors, Scomo returned to Sydney. Once back in Australia, former marketing/PR manager and spin-doctor Scomo tried to make up lost ground. He pretended to care – as much as a PM cares who left for Hawaii in the middle of the worst pre-summer bushfires Australia has ever seen. On his return, Scomo visited fire brigades but only days later, he was found swimming at one of Sydney’s favourite beaches, Bronte. Shortly after, he enforced his handshake onto a young pregnant woman and a fire fighter who rejected him. The men on the fire front had experienced neoliberal underfunding first hand. Even the otherwise very compliant Murdoch propaganda machine was forced to show Scomo’s rejection by the fire-fighters. In true PR style, Scomo rolled up with six cars of his media and security entourage to present “one” bag of biscuits to survivors for the all important media photo. While Scomo visited the fire-struck town of Cobargo, local people were yelling obscenities at him as he walked around the dusty village. You’re not welcome you f***wit, one women shouted.

While Sydney’s New Year’s fireworks were sparkling, fear, desolation, and fury reigned in many parts of Australia. During the fireworks display, around $2 million were collected to support fire fighters, dwarfing the $100 billion Scomo and his gang was spending on submarines – to defend Australia against an enemy that does not exist. Sheer unimaginable numbers define the cost – this is what $2,000,000 looks like and, in comparison, Scomo’s $100 billion are spelled out as $100,000,000,000. In other words, Scomo’s conservatives are spending fifty thousand times the money people collected during New Year’s Eve. This means that for every Dollar Australians had collected, Scomo and his henchmen are spending $50,000 on military hardware – Australian tax money that goes to unwarranted submarines, not bushfires and the prevention of global warming. Submarines do not help the people who lost their houses and loved ones in the bush fires.

On the last day of the year, fires raged like never before in Australia. At the same time, the gap between an increasingly larger section of the population and climate activists on the one hand and the government on the other was widening. Scomo has locked himself on the side of global warming denial. The man had made a name for himself when he carried a lump of coal into Australia’s parliament to show Australians that “coal is not dangerous” and perhaps climate change is absolute crap as his ideological off-sider Tony Abbott once said.

Scomo spent New Year’s Eve at Kirribilli House, his Sydney mansion, celebrating with supporters and enjoying grand views of the harbour and fireworks. More than a quarter of a million citizens had petitioned to cancel the world famous spectacle. They also donated money to the victims of the fires. At the same time, Scomo’s behaviour and the ravages of fire combined with sky high temperatures were fuelling an increased awareness of global warming. More and more Australians are now accusing Scomo of failing them. Just a few months ago, he won the May election on an anti-taxation and anti-environmental ticket.

Today, people demand a voice be given to those Australians who now say the government has completely underestimated – even ignored – the scale of disaster as well as global warming. Meanwhile, Scomo, a religious believer, deems the bushfires to be God’s work. As he tours around and gives press conference after press conference, his message is: this is a natural disaster. It comes despite the fact that it has long ago stopped being a natural disaster. But for Scomo and his entourage, the bushfires are not linked to global warming. Increasingly, and faced with the daily evidence to the contrary, people see the link between bushfires and global warming with their own eyes.

At the same time, more than 3,000 volunteer fire fighters, supported by overseas fire fighters quickly flown in to aid ill-prepared Australia, are fighting the inferno. On Boxing Day and the Friday after, two Navy landing craft supplied water and food to those trapped on the beaches of coastal towns in the states of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW). Military helicopters as well as a Norwegian ship and helicopter pulled the wounded out of the coastal town of Mallacoota, which was overrun by fire. A police boat brought water and diesel for generators.

Meanwhile, a total area of more than four million hectares – larger than the Netherlands – fell victim to the fires. Thousands of people are trapped in many villages because main arteries such as the Princess Highway and numerous country roads are closed. The death toll has risen to around twenty, including a third fire fighter dying only recently. A fire engine was thrown into the air by a fire tornado. At least seven people have lost their lives in the fire since 30th of December. Many more are missing.

Toxic Air Mislabelled Haze

In Mallacoota, about 3,000 holidaymakers and the more than a thousand residents had saved themselves by running towards the beach in distress. Hundreds also fled to the beach south of the holiday resort of Batemans Bay. The bay is an important holiday destination for Australia’s capital, Canberra. Local people escaped the flames. People, horses, and dogs also escaped the blaze by going to Malua Beach. Many wore breathing masks against the biting smoke, which also hangs over the capital, an hour and a half away. Sydney too was covered in smoke for days on end. The official version is to call the smoke from bushfires “haze” – a rather innocent looking term. Air pollution has even reached New Zealand.

During the last two days of 2019, Scomo enjoyed relatively good weather in Sydney. At the same time, air levels in the capital Canberra fell to its worst level on New Year’s Day. At times, Canberra had the worst air quality worldwide. Visibility went down to around a hundred metres. Locals stayed indoors, in restaurants, and cinemas to escape the acrid smoke of the wildfires. Later, the government was forced to warn of “toxic air”. Pollution through fine particles reached 5,000 micrograms per cubic metre of air. The highest category – called toxic – is anything above a concentration of 200. For Scomo all this is just a natural disaster not linked to global warming.

Along the coast where many Canberra residents spend their Christmas holidays, there was a power outrage. People were hiding behind sand dunes by the sea to protect themselves from the extreme temperatures in the adjacent bush. At many houses in regional towns, gas cylinders used for cooking exploded in the heat. More than 5,000 people were waiting to be rescued in Bermagui in Canberra’s south. The storm turned direction in Mallacoota creating many more hours of anxiety.

With resources underfunded since years, help takes time. In panic, Scomo’s government deployed Navy ships. Meanwhile, local rescuers are battling exhaustion. Because of Australia’s unpreparedness, Canadians and Americans are flown in. The next wave of fires is looming as early as the first weekend of 2020. With heat wave after heat wave and “the hottest day on record” to be broken the next day with another hottest day on record, slowly but surely Australians are forced to wake up to the realities of global warming. Across Australia, temperatures have risen to record levels of more than 40+ degrees. The extreme drought of recent years has turned trees into dry matchsticks. The bush is tinder dry. Water restrictions have been announced. Power plants lack cooling water and reservoirs are at low levels.

Thunderstorms and Power

Meanwhile, disaster experts are warning of firestorms. These engineer their own climate and are next to impossible to battle. Their high rising flame towers attract more and more oxygen and accelerate the fires even further. All of this leads to volatile storms and fire flashes. It causes significantly higher fire speeds driving fires in unpredictable directions. The resulting thunderstorms of fire are like an atomic mushroom similar to a cloud after a volcano. These clouds can rise up to the stratosphere. At that point, they meet with ice particles of different temperatures. Disaster is the outcome. This is an inferno against which the best people on the ground are powerless.

After a slight temperature drop on the 1st of January, fire fighters created new preventative lanes to stop new fires that are expected over the next weekend. One the 4th of January, temperatures rose to 48.9 degrees in Sydney’s western suburb of Penrith – about 60 miles from Sydney’s centre. At that time, it was the hottest place on earth. A state of emergency for NSW has been declared. With an average temperature of 41.9 degrees, Australia recorded one of the many hottest days in history in mid-December. Meanwhile religiously dogmatic Scomo prays for rain even though it has not really worked since the time praying was invented about 5,000 years ago.

Last week, Scomo was forced to apologize for his lies about his Hawaiian holiday. Since then, Scomo tried to regain political ground. He likes to be photographed on a fire hose and pretend to be active in mission control stations and during helicopter fly-overs. Meanwhile, party mate and NSW disaster minister, David Elliott, enjoys a European holiday. He too is forced to return early as people’s anger spilled over on Internet sites.

The behaviour of Scomo and his entourage testifies to an ever-deepening division in Australia. Furnished with climate change denial attitudes by Australia’s domineering Murdoch press, many farmers have started to depict a melting away of support for Scomo.

Global Warming Bites Neoliberal Ideology

Following their own ideology to the letter, Scomo’s ministers describe global warming campaigners as madmen who live in the inner cities. Yet Australia’s global warming campaigners and Greens have not created global warming. Meanwhile, Scomo and his entourage have done everything they can to sabotage attempts to fight global warming. The recent environmental summit in Madrid was another sad moment for Australia’s international standing. Meanwhile, the barrier reef, a World Heritage site under the protection of the United Nations, is dying. Large areas of forest are also protected by Unesco. These areas are now falling victim to the flames. Earlier, some of them had already become victims of legal and illegal land clearing – the deliberate and targeted destruction of forests. The annihilation of habitat is accelerating the extinction of animals.

Next to land clearing – targeted deforestation – coal-into-parliament-carrying Scomo promotes coal as what he calls “black gold”. He was ridiculed by critics for it. The extraction of fossil fuels turbo-charges global warming. One of Scomo’s favourite projects is a coal mine to be built in Queensland by India’s Adani Group. It will be one of the world’s largest coalmines. Simultaneously, more and more business leaders are calling on their own governments to turn around their failed global warming policy.

Most recently, Australia’s energy minister was still defending the government’s non-sustainable energy policy. Scomo’s henchmen are adamant that Australia will not back down from its anti-global warming stance. To tackle the self-inflicted energy crisis, Scomo’s entourage is keeping Australia’s ageing coal-fired power stations in operation. Meanwhile, the world goes the other way. Global demand for coal is declining. By generating electricity through coal, Scomo will not achieve target agreements on climate protection. All the while, he prays for rain.

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Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).

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