By ANSHUMAN BHARGAVA :
“Not that Morris could not act or he didn’t have the adequate resources or technological prowess. It is a sheer case of neglect and taking it casually because forest fires are not new to Australia.”
“According to a recent survey, at least 52 percent of people in Australia disapprove of Prime Minister Morris’ overall performance in this area of a major environmental concern that should have seen a much more alacritous action.”
THE widespread wildfire in Australia that ravaged 12 million acres of forestland apart from countless animals and 29 humans, is almost equal in intensity as the widespread anger and angst of the people against their Prime Minister. For several weeks, as the fire ripped through the continent, videos did rounds on social media how the people in the affected areas were even reluctant to shake hands with the Prime Minister as he went out assuaging the grief and anxiety of the people. It was seen as a damage-control exercise after late action by the Government in taming and tackling the fires. He was greeted with jeers and protests wherever he went and the media was scathing in its attack.
Morris was late in waking up to reality, even as the world could see the glaring lapses in management and the redressal mechanism of the catastrophic occurrence. In August 2018, when Scott Morrison became Australia’s PM, he presented himself as a leader of mettle who would stand by his promises of good governance. For the last ten years, Australian politics has been in turmoil, leading to five PMs losing their seat of power due to various issues, lack of environmental action being one major concern among them. People disillusioned by this history of the recent past had reposed faith in Morris.
During his taking over as PM, Morris had evoked Bono: “When the history books are written, our age will be remembered for … what we did—or did not do to put the fire out.” Now those words are appearing to be true if the bushfire crisis is taken into concern. Huge and mighty wildfires have gulped down an area of huge size destroyed irreplaceable ecosystems, and prompted lakhs of evacuations. Morrison has been forced by circumstances and the pressure of public opinion across the globe to finally acknowledged some responsibility for mishandling the crisis, though it would have been prudent to do it early. Many outside the Morrison camp and some even inside it are mincing no words in claiming and accepting that the late and lackluster financial relief the PM offered and his reluctance to name climate change as a cause contributed to the fires spreading at an astonishing speed, in some cases moving up to 55 miles an hour and rising up to 70 meters in the sky that firefighters found hard to douse. The Australian Government took four months to fully acknowledge the connection— and even then, critics called it too little too late. Its allocation of $1.4 billion in funding for damage relief has been described as a mere “drop in the bucket” in response to the fires’ epic proportions, news reports say. According to a recent survey, at least 52 per cent of people in Australia disapprove of Prime Minister Morris’ overall performance in this area of a major environmental concern that should have seen a much more alacritous action. Panned by critics and the public alike, Morris, already in the midst of a mess that smacks of poor management, maybe the sixth casualty in about 12 years of recent Australian politics. Not that Morris could not act or he didn’t have the adequate resources or technological prowess. It is a sheer case of neglect and taking it casually because forest fires are not new to Australia. From 2005-06 at least, the spread, rapidity, intensity, and frequency of the fires have been increasing, but no leader took it that seriously till this year when the fires took catastrophic proportions. That the fires of this season would be more unprecedented and damaging was long predicted by experts, which should have alarmed the Governments because they had the cues to know it was coming. In 2007, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a sub-organisation of the United Nations that tracks climate change impact, said: “An increase in fire danger in Australia is likely to be associated with a reduced interval between fires, increased fire intensity, a decrease in fire extinguishments and faster fire spread.” The report puts the onus on the Australian Government: “Differences in political commitment, lack of strong and clear guidelines from Government…are major constraints.” Initially, Australia appeared to respond. In 2008, it established research facilities to study climate change adaption. Then, in 2017, Morrison, who was then the country’s treasurer, gutted funding to a fraction of what it was. An avid supporter of coal mines and coal-based plants, Morris prioritised the fossil fuel industry over a sustainable future, thereby adding to the ingredients for longer, drier fire seasons. In March 2019, 300 scientists signed an open letter to the federal and local governments across Australia, requesting that they strengthen regulations on land clearing, citing bush fires as a potential consequence of relaxed rules. The Australian area of New South Wales, which had the most damaging fires, loosened controls on land clearing in 2017 by repealing a 2003 law that dictated how landowners could manage their vegetation. Land-clearing could contribute to lengthier droughts and carbon emissions, both combustors of bushfires, it was warned in the letter. Both cleared landscapes and natural ecosystems are susceptible to bushfires. The increase in the practice created an environment more prone to fires. When the fires finally came, for the first three months, the emergency response of the Government was poor. There was no unified system or centralised management of the crisis as it was largely left in the hands of the State Governments, who were short of power and resources to do their best. In December, NSW firefighters made a direct appeal to local and federal officials for help, with the head of the volunteer fire fighting association characterising the fires as “out of control.” Nearly two weeks later, with the even more intense and destructive flames, Morrison finally indicated that the Federal Government would step in, by deploying the country’s military, to assist in emergency response. Unfortunately, nobody told the head of NSW firefighting efforts of this development – again an instance of mismanagement and lack of important communication. Since April, an organisation of former emergency responders called Emergency Leaders for Climate Action Group sought to convince the Government—among other measures—to beef up its reserves of firefighting airplanes. Finally, after three months of continuous flames, the federal Government relented, designating $7.5 m USD to lease four fire-fighting airplanes. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Mullins is reported to have said that the funding “sat there for 18 months without any action.” The glaring lapses as are surfacing in the incident serve as a template for all other countries which are prone to natural exigencies of catastrophic scale, including India whose diverse climatic zones and topographical differences pose challenges of different degrees, especially to a population exposed to grave vulnerability due to poverty and ignorance. If the fire incident of such an unprecedented scale had happened in a country like India, we doubt how far and to what degree of efficiency we would have been able to tame it. What we don’t doubt, however, is that every Government and administration has its share of lapses and negligence which end up accumulating till a catastrophe happens. If we don’t correct the little discrepancies and smaller corrosions of the Earth’s resources in daily life with constructive and innovative actions when we have time, in a crisis we will be in deep trouble. By the way, the Australian incident should be an eye-opener for Governments across the world, especially regarding weak environmental laws and superficial environmental concern shown by most world leaders. Today, if it is they who are in trouble, tomorrow it has been us and the ravages of nature will be ever more destructive with time.