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As Australia fires kill animals and destroy property, costs of climate change become clear

For those spuriously claiming climate ambition comes at a cost, let Australia’s black summer serve as a potent reminder that inaction does, too.
A burned vehicle is seen on Quinlans street after an overnight bushfire in Quaama in Australia's New South Wales state on Jan. 6, 2020.Saeed Khan / AFP - Getty Images

On Oct. 26, lightning struck west of Sydney, deep inside a national park that was tinder dry after years of below-average rainfall.

It ignited a blaze that would grow into what The Sydney Morning Herald dubbed “the monster.” More than two months later, the blaze is still burning — as are hundreds of separate fires across four Australian states in a disaster that is now unprecedented, even in a country too familiar with fire.

Over 18,750 square miles have burned. Almost 2,000 homes have been lost. At least 26 Australians have lost their lives, and scientists estimate that close to 500 million animals may also have been killed.

More than two months later, the blaze is still burning — as are hundreds of separate fires across four Australian states in a disaster that is now unprecedented.

Some communities were driven by the flames all the way to the sea. The Australian navy was called to rescue around 1,000 people in the beach-side town of Mallacoota, in what would become one of the largest peacetime evacuations in Australian history.

As the fires worsened, Australia’s government responded slowly and to ridicule. Prime Minister Scott Morrison took a holiday in Hawaii. Shortly after, his defense minister, Linda Reynolds, relaxed in Bali, from where she — somehow — also oversaw planning for one of Australia’s largest peacetime military mobilizations.

The complacent response to this heartbreakingly predictable, climate-change-exacerbated disaster was a tragic, final stanza in a decade of climate ambivalence by Australia’s federal government, which has long gained political mileage from stoking fear about the costs of action on climate. What was not as seriously discussed by leadership was the cost of inaction on climate change — costs that are now coming into focus and serve as a portent to the astronomical costs of inaction not only for Australia, but for the world.

The cost of bushfire smoke in Sydney alone was put at around $50 million ($34 million in U.S. dollars) a day.

Insurance claims have reached many hundreds of millions of dollars — and are still rising.

Hundreds of millions is expected to be lost on tourism on Australia’s southeast coast.

Food is spoiling in trucks headed west to Australia’s most remote city, Perth, after fire on the Nullarbor Plain cut off that city’s main road east.

The destruction of crops has likely left thousands of Australian famers without an income — in some cases, for the next few years.

And yet Australia, under Morrison and his conservative predecessors, is the only nation to repeal an effective carbon pricing scheme. It is among the largest per capita emitters. And it is the largest exporter of coal which, while a cornerstone of Australia’s economy today, cannot fuel Australia’s wealth in perpetuity. The Morrison government is one of middling climate ambition, paying lip-service to the issue of our time while overseeing rising emissions.

Previously, Australia took our changing climate a lot more seriously. In 2007, Labor leader Kevin Rudd declared climate change “the great moral challenge of our generation.” In office for six tumultuous years, the government eventually passed a contentious “carbon tax,” driving down emissions.

But in 2013, the Labor government was defeated by Tony Abbott’s conservatives. An avowed climate sceptic, Abbott promptly repealed that law. In the seven years since, Australia’s conservative regime has abandoned nearly every subsequent consensus-driven proposal for emissions reduction, going so far as to argue against international efforts to tackle climate change and using dodgy accounting tricks to falsely improve Australia’s overall emission calculations.

There is some climate-friendly reform happening in Australia, but it is driven by consumers, state governments and business. Roof-top solar panels are more popular in sun-bathed Australia than anywhere else. The state of South Australia is powered predominately by wind and solar, and home to the world’s largest grid scale lithium-ion battery. But even these initiatives have been pilloried by an immature federal government, who see political advantage in deriding such initiatives.

Under days of fierce questioning about the relationship between climate change and the bushfire crisis, the prime minister eventually conceded the link.

But Morrison is no climate warrior. He once carried a clump of coal into a parliamentary debate in support of that industry; claimed electric vehicle policies would effectively end weekend road trips; and even intervened in parliamentary pre-selections — the Australian equivalent of a U.S. primary election — guaranteeing a seat for the government’s most ardent climate sceptic.

His current about-face is welcome, but it remains improbable that his government will change course on climate: to do so would to admit it had it been wrong for the best part of a decade.

In Sydney, navigating the thick smoke has become a dreary, almost daily chore. The Opera House has vanished behind brown haze, while toxic air has seeped into delivery rooms. Even the blistering Australian sun can barely muster a dull, twilight-orange on the days when the smoke blows in.

In South Australia, one-third of the pristine Kangaroo Island was destroyed. A haven for the endangered koala, there are fears much of the island’s native population has been killed, imperiling one of Australia’s most iconic species.

Australia’s conservative government has long derided climate action as costly and unnecessary. But costs of the fires prove the folly of such ideologically charged complacency.

A $2 billion ($1.39 billion U.S.) reconstruction fund has now been announced, designed to rebuild lost schools, homes and vital infrastructure across the four states affected by the crisis. The fund is a big deal, on par with the largest disaster reconstruction efforts in Australia’s history.

So significant is the commitment that it will likely threaten the government’s long-promised budget surplus. When asked about how much would be spent to repair the damage, the prime minister was straightforward: “Whatever it takes.”

Climate change didn’t ignite Australia’s fires. But it has undoubtedly exacerbated their severity and duration, driving one of Australia’s costliest natural disasters. For those spuriously claiming climate ambition comes at a cost, let Australia’s black summer serve as a potent reminder that inaction does, too.