SYDNEY — Not long after Jack Egan’s home burned down during Australia’s “Black Summer” wildfires a year ago, he made a life-changing decision.
At 60, Egan quit his job so he could spend his days campaigning for stronger action on climate change, a national and global challenge he said was “akin to a war.”
“I was working quite happily in aged care … but the fires caused me to devote the rest of my life to volunteer on climate action. I took an early retirement and that’s what I do full time now,” he said.
Egan, whose property in Rosedale on the country’s south-east coast has still not been rebuilt, recalled how “the fires had a behavior that was new to Australia, or new to me at least … and the length of the fires — months — was really shocking.”
February marks one year since Australia’s catastrophic wildfire season started to ease, after leaving 34 people dead and torching at least 18 million hectares of land (nearly 44.5 million acres). It was, in the words of one state premier, “the most devastating natural disaster in living memory.”
For Egan, it has been a year not only of recovery, but also of action. He spreads the word on “climate solutions and the benefits therein” around small, regional communities and was part of a delegation of survivors that took the remnants of their charred homes to Australia’s Parliament House, urging politicians to do more.
“It [the Australian government] is doing as little as possible, as little as they can get away with,” Egan said. “I feel ashamed of our country as it’s allowed some sort of short-term cynical politics to prevent proper climate action.”
Despite a chorus of scientists saying climate change is contributing to longer and more intense wildfire seasons, Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to introduce any major climate measures after the disaster. Mass protests were held across the country calling for tougher climate action, but Morrison remained unmoved.
Morrison leads a conservative coalition government, which has been in power since 2013. His government’s track record on climate includes repealing the country’s carbon tax and Morrison famously bringing a lump of coal into Parliament, saying, “Don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you.”
The prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Morrison has acknowledged the threat of climate change and routinely defends a “sensible” response. As part of the Paris climate agreement, his government committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.
But climate advocacy groups say much stronger commitments are needed, especially as Australia has one of the world’s highest per capita levels of emissions and is among the biggest fossil fuel exporters.
“We know very clearly the Black Summer fires were fueled by climate change and that Australia has to play a much bigger part in addressing its contribution to that problem,” Simon Bradshaw of the Climate Council, an advocacy group, said. “But we haven’t seen the federal government do anything further to actually tackle the root cause of the climate crisis.”
“We’ve seen the government refuse to strengthen its 2030 emissions reduction targets,” Bradshaw added, “ … and also refuse to commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier. At this point, we’re pretty much alone among developed countries having refused to do either of those things.”
More than 100 countries have set net zero targets. This week, Morrison went as far as saying that net zero emissions by 2050 would be “preferable.” But when pressed for specifics, he said, “When I can tell you how we get there, that’s when I’ll tell you when we’re going to get there.”
In the meantime, the research group Climate Action Tracker rates the government’s response as “insufficient.”
A patchwork recovery
As a political battle around climate change is being fought in Australia, the country is also counting the cost of the wildfires on its flora and fauna.
Basha Stasak, the nature program manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the disaster “really hit all swaths of the animal world.”
“It’s estimated that 3 billion animals were killed or displaced by the bushfires last summer,” Stasak said. “This includes really iconic species that are known around the world, like the koala, which lost an estimated 30 percent of its habitat in New South Wales.”
A report by WWF-Australia found that more than 60,000 koalas were affected by the infernos, which it called “a deeply disturbing number for a species already in trouble.”
There is slightly better news when it comes to Australia’s flora.
Patrick Norman, an ecologist at Griffith University and a researcher with the Bushfire Recovery Project, said most Australian forests have adaptations in order to survive fire.
“[Many forests] are recovering how they should, and are responding particularly well after a La Niña year, which has been excellent. Most of the areas impacted had a good, high amount of rainfall in 2020.”
But he said some subalpine areas in New South Wales and Victoria, along with wetter forests in northern New South Wales were not recovering as well due to the especially brutal fire conditions.
“They [the fires] were just an enormous event,” Norman said. “It’s definitely scary looking into the future, at a further warming climate. We’re only just starting to see the impacts now.”