By Scott Wilson
Jan. 19, 2020 at 7:06 a.m. GMT+9 The Washington Post
MALUA BAY, Australia — When the flames swept up from the cove through the gum trees, Neda Cettnic signaled frantically that it was time for her grandchildren to get off the roof.
It was New Year’s Eve, and fires across this vast continent had already scorched tens of thousands of acres. Now the fire was coming for Cettnic’s hillside home.
The three grandchildren, ranging from 8 to 11 years old, had been deployed to clear debris from trees that the government had not allowed the family to cut back in the weeks before fire season. The federal government had also ignored advice to call in advance for foreign reinforcements to help Australian firefighters.
So across the dry valleys and eucalyptus forests of southeastern Australia, preparing for the fires sometimes fell to grandmothers like Cettnic, a retired registered nurse, and her grandchildren, who wondered aloud what had happened to the sun when the sky turned night-black before noon.
“Everything just shriveled with the heat,” recalled Cettnic, her house still largely intact after the flames blew past.
Australia is angry — very angry. Its ire is directed primarily at a government that left citizens like the Cettnics feeling as though they have to fend for themselves during fires that have burned for months. Through the haze of smoke that has blanketed major cities, many Australians are also angry about public policies that largely discount climate change as a problem worth addressing in the near term.
Wildfires that have torched an area larger than Portugal, killed at least 25 people and destroyed hundreds of homes have electrified the politics of climate change here and altered the nation’s long-standing, if largely ineffective, environmental movement. Scientists say that rising temperatures — Australia has measured record-breaking heat during its summer — mutated the fire season into something more deadly and devastating than ever before seen.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing a reckoning not only over his government’s preparation and management of the fires, which were doused last week by days of pounding summer rain, but also its larger environmental and energy policy.
The future of the country’s reliance on coal, as its primary export and a key source of its energy, is being challenged more aggressively than ever with the fires and obviously warming climate as a vivid green-screen backdrop.
Reelected prime minister in May, Morrison has called for a federal inquiry into his government’s response to the fires. But he also has indicated he will not curtail his efforts to expand the coal industry, calling it an essential driver of jobs and tax revenue.
“The suggestion that there’s any one emissions reduction policy or climate policy that has contributed directly to any of these fire events is just ridiculous,” Morrison said in a radio interview this month. “And the conflation of those two things, I think, has been very disappointing.”
New tactics for new realities
Helping propel the public criticism is a movement new to Australia known as Extinction Rebellion, which began in the United Kingdom two years ago and operates largely alongside traditional environmental groups.
It is more guerrilla operation than government lobby, an unconnected series of small cells that favor direct public action over long mobilization and information campaigns. Signal, the encrypted messaging app, is the group’s communication mode of choice.
The group has staged large rallies and attention-drawing stunts. At the height of the holiday season, the group built in hurried coordination a Santa’s sleigh in the middle of Sydney’s shopping district, the elves and reindeer “killed” by the coal economy. Such tactics are managing to expand and sharpen Australia’s once-stodgy environmental movement.
“To be a rebel, all we ask is for your email and to come to one talk,” said A.J. Tennant, who left a job as a copywriter for the New South Wales government just before the “Santa action.” The Sydney group’s Instagram account has gone from 1,000 to 35,000 followers in just the past two weeks of fire, protest and civil disobedience.
“People have had a gutful, and the old ways just do not work,” said Larissa Payne, a former high school history and English teacher recently turned full-time activist. “And it’s not just senior citizens, and students and old-school hippies. It’s doctors, dads and their kids, firefighters.”
For years, the environmental movement here was primarily the domain of academics, scientists and young idealists. The pull by Extinction Rebellion and other public-relations-savvy groups to enlist former fire officials, doctors, business leaders and farmers into the national climate conversation has made the government’s criticism of the movement as out-of-touch less plausible than it once was.
“All of the portents were there at the start of this fire season,” said Greg Mullins, who served as chief of the huge New South Wales fire service before retiring after more than four decades in the field. “We tried to warn the government, but we were dismissed as a bunch of activists.”
Mullins sits on the Climate Council, described as the nation’s leading independent climate change communications organization. His April warning to Morrison’s government came in the form of four letters, each signed by 23 former fire chiefs from every state.
“We were seeking a meeting to relay to the prime minister what we had been seeing and studying,” Mullins said.
The chiefs wrote that the Australian government should begin immediately securing leased firefighting aircraft from the United States, which can take time to deliver, especially with the American West facing its own severe fire seasons. There was no meeting, and the warning was never acted on.
“The government continues to say that it is insensitive to talk about climate change while people are losing their homes,” said Mullins, 60. “But people want to know now, they are the ones asking: ‘Why with more firefighters, more firefighting equipment, better building standards are we seeing what we are seeing now?’”