The horror of the bushfires enveloping the coasts of Australia brings very bad memories back to those of us who survived similar (I imagine) wildfires in Southern California. The orange skies — “blood red” in New South Wales — the vaporized houses, with the roofs flat on the ground, the animal carcasses, the grim expressions of friends and neighbors looking at the devastation.
In Australia, the novelist Richard Flanagan lays out the disaster in blunt, verifiable terms for an op-ed for the NYTimes:
BRUNY ISLAND, Australia — Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world-heritage rain forests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent [about the size of the lower 48] is burning on a scale never before seen.
The images of the fires are a cross between “Mad Max” and “On the Beach”: thousands driven onto beaches in a dull orange haze, crowded tableaux of people and animals almost medieval in their strange muteness — half-Bruegel, half-Bosch, ringed by fire, survivors’ faces hidden behind masks and swimming goggles. Day turns to night as smoke extinguishes all light in the horrifying minutes before the red glow announces the imminence of the inferno. Flames leaping 200 feet into the air. Fire tornadoes. Terrified children at the helm of dinghies, piloting away from the flames, refugees in their own country.
The fires have already burned about 14.5 million acres — an area almost as large as West Virginia, more than triple the area destroyed by the 2018 fires in California and six times the size of the 2019 fires in Amazonia. Canberra’s air on New Year’s Day was the most polluted in the world partly because of a plume of fire smoke as wide as Europe.
Scientists estimate that close to half a billion native animals have been killed and fear that some species of animals and plants may have been wiped out completely. Surviving animals are abandoning their young in what is described as mass “starvation events.” At least 18 people are dead and grave fears are held about many more.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/03/opinion/australia-fires-climate-change.html
But Flanagan also details how the right-wing government, backed by an unholy alliance of Murdoch media and a coal baron, has suppressed reasonable attempts to reduce emissions and prepare for these inevitable disasters, mostly by not allowing discussion of global heating. This is leading to bitter resentment when Morrison visits towns leveled by fire.
On Thursday, Mr. Morrison was heckled as he visited Cobargo, a New South Wales village where fires have killed two men and destroyed the main street. When he extended his hand to one woman, she said she would shake it only if he increased spending on firefighting.
“You won’t be getting any votes down here, buddy,” one man yelled. “You’re out, son.”
This was shown even in news footage, as a firefighter who just lost his house reacts to a visit from the Prime Minister.
Gosh this is so awkward. Australian PM Scott Morrison goes to try and shake the hand of a firefighter who does not appear keen. (The PM was abused earlier by angry locals) Filmed by @GregNelsonACS @abcnews #AustraliaBurning #NSWbushfires #SouthCoastFires pic.twitter.com/3zjeJp3jWe— Sophie McNeill (@Sophiemcneill) January 2, 2020
Flanagan points out that the Soviet Union collapsed after the Chernobyl disaster, in large part because the people lost all faith in the government.
Mr. Morrison may have a massive propaganda machine in the Murdoch press and no opposition, but his moral authority is bleeding away by the hour. On Thursday, after walking away from a woman asking for help, he was forced to flee the angry, heckling residents of a burned-out town. A local conservative politician described his own leader’s humiliation as “the welcome he probably deserved.”
As Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, once observed, the collapse of the Soviet Union began with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. In the wake of that catastrophe, “the system as we knew it became untenable,” he wrote in 2006. Could it be that the immense, still-unfolding tragedy of the Australian fires may yet prove to be the Chernobyl of climate crisis?