Australia’s “black summer” of devastating forest fires is finally coming to an end, but bitter discussions continue to emerge about how to deal with climate disasters.
When firefighters announced this week that all the fires in the most affected state in New South Wales were under control for the first time since September, the relief was palpable.
In other regions, some fires are still being contained, but most Australians can finally abandon the grim rituals of the past half year: morning checks of smog monitors and the “Fires Near Me” apps, deciding whether children can play outside, if to flee or defend their homes.
But the aftermath will last, and the national search for souls has already begun.
“We know that events like these can challenge the way we think about the world, undermine our security perceptions and break social ties,” said disaster response expert Erin Smith.
Dozens of families have lost loved ones, thousands of homes and farms have been destroyed, strips of the east coast are marked with black coal and millions of people have seen their sense of security shaken.
“It will probably take years and a lot of imagination for us to know where we are going from here,” Smith said.
The question of what is next for Australia is already being raised, especially of political leaders, and is being answered mainly with accusations and recrimination.
– “Heads above the parapet” –
While scientists agree that climate change created favorable conditions for fires, politicians of all senses are very aware of how sensitive the issue is in Australian politics.
In an arid nation whose economic strength is intimately linked to the mining and export of fossil fuels, at least four prime ministers have been partly expelled for their climate policies.
In recent weeks, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has seen his conservative ruling coalition threatened by members of rural constituencies demanding funding for more coal-fired power plants.
At the same time, the centrist wing of his party has criticized his climate goals as inadequate.
Meanwhile, the rebel members of the Labor opposition met in secret to direct the leadership of the center-left party towards a more openly favorable coal stance.
The deputy director of the party clumsily refused to rule out more coal subsidies, months after promising they should end.
“They don’t want to poke their heads over the parapet, at least when it comes to suggesting substantive policies,” said Matt McDonald, climate policy expert at the University of Queensland.
One reason, he explained, is that while the dry and warm Australian continent is especially susceptible to the impact of climate change, it is also a global source of coal.
Coal accounts for about 75 percent of Australia’s electricity generation and fossil fuel exports are worth Aus $ 60 billion a year, the country’s largest export after iron ore.
People in rich suburbs can ask for emissions and green energy cuts, but coal represents thousands of jobs in the decisive districts of Queensland and New South Wales, and many more in the related aluminum foundry business.
The independent deputy Zali Steggall, a former Olympic medal winning lawyer and skier, who expelled the skeptical former Prime Minister Tony Abbott from his seat in Sydney in the last elections, wants to get some heat out of the debate.
She has presented a bill that would reduce Australia’s carbon emissions to zero by 2050 and divert some controversial issues to an independent body of experts.
“The debate has been very divisive,” partly due to the blame game, Steggall told AFP. “There was a certain defensive attitude in the early days of this debate because the finger pointed so directly to coal and fossil fuels.”
“You have to think of a generation that worked very hard to build Australia’s prosperity in fossil fuels. You must be very careful in the debate about the distribution of guilt. It is not that it was done on purpose.”
“It’s about recognizing and thanking that contribution, but recognizing that we do need to evolve,” he added. “We will all reach the end.”
With forest fires projected to be increasingly deadly and next season just over six months, the risk, says Steggall, is that politicians take so long to reach a consensus “it will be too late to do something.”