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I'm doing what the Australian government won't – telling the truth about the climate crisis

Scott Morrison is dangerously downplaying the climate crisis – forcing people like me to tell the world the truth

Bodie Ashton
Tuesday 07 January 2020 17:12 GMT
'Tell the Prime Minister to get f*****' says angry firefighter to media as Australia bushfires death toll rises

A few days ago, I sat down to write a short Twitter thread explaining the size of the bushfire crisis in my native Australia. What I didn’t expect was that this thread would spread around the world, quoted and retweeted by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Neil Gaiman and more than 125,000 other people.

Clearly my tweets struck a nerve, eliciting responses of shock, sadness and a desire to help. Yet they also prompted confusion: why are we learning this from Twitter? Why not from the Australian government?

It cannot have passed unnoticed that the Australian government’s handling of this national emergency has been inept at best. Prime minister Scott Morrison justified his decision to holiday in Hawaii as Sydney choked on bushfire smoke with the line, “I don’t hold a hose, mate” – one so glib as to be seen by some as tantamount to a dereliction of duty.

Morrison’s response was, however, symptomatic of a failure to take Australia’s climate crisis seriously. His government’s hostility towards climate science is well-documented. On Thursday, Morrison claimed that his government has “always” recognised the link between climate change and the heightened bushfire risk. This must have come as a surprise to his deputy, Michael McCormack, who in November called those who credit climate change “inner-city raving lunatics”; to Matt Canavan, the resources minister who in December dismissed climate change as a “bogeyman”; and to Morrison’s backbench colleague Craig Kelly, who just a few days ago mocked meteorologist Laura Tobin as an “ignorant Pommy weather girl” after she criticised the government’s handling of climate change on Good Morning Britain.

The government’s line on the fires is that bushfires are common in Australia, and this one is unexceptional. But here’s the rub: either climate scientists are correct, in which case the wildfires are exceptional, even for the Australian summer; or the government is right, and this is normal Australian summertime weather. In either case, this emergency was both predictable and predicted – and the government has proven itself woefully unprepared.

Worse still, Scott Morrison has actively underprepared the country by cutting our emergency services. Viewed in the harsh light of the fires, the PM’s refusal to address an urgent request for new water tanker aircraft back in April, or New South Wales (NSW)’s reduction of the Rural Fire Service budget by some $26 million in spite of numerous warnings, appear less like acts of responsible government, and more like thunderous negligence.

The government has focused far more of its efforts on containing the PR crisis than the environmental one. In answering why the Australian Defence Force was not on hand to assist with the New South Wales fires, Morrison claimed help was refused by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Berejiklian insists she did nothing of the sort. The government has also claimed repeatedly that emergency services are states’ responsibility, not the country’s – a claim that, while technically correct, was rejected by the political scientist and journalist Peter Van Onselen who, in an understandably frustrated tweet, pointed to Canberra’s fiscal control and historic tendency to intervene at will. When Morrison finally did take federal action, he released an ad crowing about having done so, including a donation link that channeled funds not to the relief effort, but to Morrison’s party.

Other politicians have attempted to shift the blame for their non-response to the crisis, with former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce and NSW deputy premier John Barilaro both accusing the Green party of restricting controlled, hazard-reduction burns in NSW. Greg Mullins, former NSW fire commissioner, has rejected this, saying: “blaming greeniesfor stopping these important measures is a familiar, populist, but basically untrue claim.”

The bushfires ravaging NSW have brought out both the best and the worst in Australians. The superhuman efforts of our volunteer firefighters are a wonder to behold, as is the desire of so many to contribute so much. But popular ignorance about the fires, ignorance perpetuated by the government, has also given rise to disturbing conspiracy theories, blaming everyone from green arsonists to Jewish bankers to Islamist terrorists to railway companies – and yes, Greta Thunberg – for what’s happening.

In times like these, the world cries out for information and leadership. Scott Morrison has provided neither. Instead, he has earned himself the nickname Scotty from Marketing, full of empty slogans and self-satisfied inaction. The fact that random Twitter commentators are filling in for him is not an encouraging sign.

Bodie Ashton is a historian from Adelaide, South Australia.

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