There is a lot going on right now, what with impeachment and presidential primaries and possible war in the Middle East. Every day in the Trump era feels like a month. It seems as if things may be coming to a head as we launch into what I fervently hope will be the last year of this bizarre and disturbing political ordeal.
Nonetheless, as overwhelming an experience as it is to deal with what happens here every day, I can't help but think that looking back we will see that we were actually fiddling while Australia burned.
The epic fires that have been ravaging that country for the past several months are a screaming warning to all of us about the effects of the global climate crisis. For the most part, we're carrying on as if it's just another one-off disaster. It is not. These extremely high temperatures and the fires and devastation they cause are becoming more and more common. And we know why. We just can't seem to get the right people to take it seriously.
It is horrifying to see the toll these massive fires are taking on the countryside and even more heartbreaking to see the footage of the animals that are being killed by fire or thirst or driven from their habitats. I can't even bear to look at it anymore. It's a living hell.
At this point officials estimate that a billion animals have perished, a figure that excludes fish, frogs, bats and insects. They don't even know how many species are now endangered or possibly extinct from this one epic event.
Australia is a particularly interesting case because it doesn't actually contribute more than its share of greenhouse gases (unlike the U.S.). But it does add some deadly factors into the global mix that makes it culpable for climate change in a big way.
Australia is now the world's biggest exporter of coal, and its government works hand in glove with other fossil-fuel nations to block global climate policy. As recently as December at the Madrid climate talks, the Australians were revealed to have cooked the books to hide increased emissions. Its government has been actively hostile to any policy to restrict the use of fossil fuels.
The current prime minister, Scott Morrison of the Liberal Party (which is decidedly not "liberal" in the American sense), has faced his personal Katrina this winter. He even pulled a George W. Bush and went on holiday to Hawaii as the country was going up in smoke last fall. He called in to a talk radio show from the Aloha State to proclaim, "I don't hold a hose, mate, I don't sit in a control room." It did not go over well. He returned to an angry and upset populace:
Australian voters shouldn't have been surprised. Morrison made his bones in politics with a harsh anti-immigrant program called "Operation Sovereign Borders" which cruelly turned boat people back from their shores. But he is really known for his deep, abiding loyalty to the coal lobby.
Back in 2017, the Guardian reported on this now-legendary moment:
Scott Morrison brought coal into the House of Representatives. A nice big hunk of black coal, kindly supplied by the Minerals Council of Australia.
"This is coal," the treasurer said triumphantly, brandishing the trophy as if he'd just stumbled across an exotic species previously thought to be extinct.
"Don't be afraid," he said, soothingly, "don't be scared."
Morrison is a typical right-wing conservative who is in thrall to the energy sector of his country's economy. But he's a little different than most in that he's also a fundamentalist Christian. (In that sense, his administration is more like what we might expect from a President Mike Pence or a President Mike Pompeo.)
This article in the Australian Monthly about Morrison's religious beliefs shows yet another example of how fundamentalist theology informs the politics of many conservative Christians in powerful positions around the world:
Belief in Satan and the imminent return of Christ also helps explain the prime minister's less-than-passionate response to the most pressing environmental issue of our time. It is not surprising that Pentecostal activism about climate change is non-existent — the end of the known world is not a matter for mere mortals to decide. When Morrison proudly showed off a piece of coal in parliament, there is no reason to doubt that he believed what he held in his hand was a gift from God.
Morrison's poll numbers are falling and he is unlikely to survive as prime minister. But it's going to take something much more consequential to change Australian politics in this regard. It looks like that might even happen.
On Tuesday, it was reported that Rupert Murdoch's son James and his wife Kathryn are taking on the climate denialism at News Corp, the family's massive media empire. According to a longtime NewsCorp executive quoted in the Daily Beast, this is a serious challenge:
"They are pissing inside the tent and that's unusual. It's evidence of how high tensions are within the family over climate change. The majority of people who work here agree with James. We are hoping this may be the tipping point," the exec said.
As Media Matters has reported, the Murdoch empire, which controls 60% of Australia's media, has been pushing climate change denialism even in the midst of this monumental catastrophe. For instance:
News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt wrote in The Herald Sun: "True, the world has warmed slightly as it rebounds from the little ice age that stretched from 1300 to around 1870, but can we cool it on this panic? In that time of warming, life expectancy has shot up, world grain crops have set new records, and the death rate from extreme weather has been slashed by 99 percent."
That kind of sophistry has led to the death of a billion animals.
As we know, Australia isn't the only place where Murdoch is influential. Let's hope James prevails. It could be one of the most significant contributions to the fight.
Indeed, this whole miserable story mirrors many of the political problems around the world, not least in the U.S. We too have apocalyptic extremists in high places in government and a leader who is in thrall to the fossil fuel industry. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that "among 20 of the most powerful people in government environment jobs, most have ties to the fossil fuel industry or have fought against the regulations they now are supposed to enforce." We don't even know the extent of the damage that's being done.
The carnage Down Under should have awakened even the climate skeptics. The canary in the Australian coal mine is dead. But they won't admit it. Only political muscle can change the direction in which we're heading and it's getting awfully late. Our planet doesn't have time for any more clowns like Morrison and Trump.