Moss and Culpan: Prime Minister, your country is burning

Large tracts of the Australian continent are ablaze. Beyond the toll in lives and property, the most remarkable thing about this bushfire season is that people can see it, taste it and feel it.

While fires have long been a product of the country's hot, dry climate, they remained a remote idea for most Australians - something you caught for a few minutes on the evening news. Now more than 20 people have died and scores are missing. Areas larger than Denmark have been razed. As recently as last week, temperature warnings for parts of Sydney climbed to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Farenheit). When haze blanketed the city in early December, our Bloomberg Opinion colleague David Fickling wrote of sleepless nights and bronchial coughs, amazed at the apathy of the political class.

Politicians are feeling pressure now. While visiting fire victims in Cobargo, just inland from the coast, conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced an irate crowd. Some refused to shake his hand; others called for more resources to fight the flames. This angry reception came after he enjoyed an ill-timed vacation to Hawaii shortly before Christmas.

It's always risky to travel far from home during a crisis, but this jaunt was especially ham-handed: Morrison's office initially denied he was away, all while photos of him wearing board shorts and throwing up a surfer sign circulated on social media. A contrite Morrison was forced to return early.

This tabloid-worthy distraction now risks crowding out serious policy discussion. The opposition Labor Party, worried about losing the support of mining unions, wishes climate change would just go away, having blamed defeat in May's national election on being too pro-environment. Morrison, who staked his candidacy on support for the coal industry, has played down the impact of climate change on the fires, recently asking Australians to “be patient.” His administration has been in emergency-response mode; but the crisis will be wasted if Australia's political class can't force a deeper reckoning about how to address climate change.

Voters should make this decision easy. Contrary to its “Crocodile Dundee” image abroad, Australia is one of the most urbanized societies on earth. The majority of its 25 million people live close to the coastline in the southeastern corner of the land mass. Much of the action the past week has been in that region, on the coast of New South Wales. This area is frequented by vacationers from Canberra, the federal capital and where one of your columnists grew up. Childhood vacation spots, like Batemans Bay, Malua Bay, Surf Beach, Mollymook and Ulladulla have been singed, or are close to it.

One longtime friend described a scene as resembling Dunkirk, with evacuees waiting on beaches for help, sometimes from the decks of their boats. Another said his brothers returned home to find the back fence had burned to the ground, the house possibly seconds from engulfing flames. Photos taken driving north toward Sydney, fleeing the inferno, resemble the surface of the moon.

Fires aren't usually this early in summer or this close to the coast. They tend to be further inland and later, around February and March, when the scrub has been baking for months. But with record-breaking temperatures, things can get dangerous very quickly.

One of your columnists recalls devastating fires in the rural northern outskirts of Melbourne nearly two generations ago. The view from his classroom window was of the Australian bush. Lush and green in winter, dry and brown in summer. Kookaburras laughed and cockatoos chattered from the trees, kangaroos and wallabies were spotted bounding between the trees, always eliciting excitement from kids young and old.

Then Ash Wednesday came. Late in the summer of 1983, after the school year had already commenced and while the bush remained dried out, the skies started turning dark. Parents were summoned to pick up their kids. Everyone knew the dangers. Local scrub fires seemed like an annual event, usually under control the same day and rarely causing much harm.

Just a few kilometers from the fire front, the flames couldn't easily be seen. The thickness of the smoke signaled that this time was different, though - black like a thunder cloud but more silent, more deadly. More than 70 people died.

For more and more Australians, this won't be a once-in-a-generation event. What a pity if the only lesson is that politicians cross Hawaii from their vacation lists.

Daniel Moss and Tim Clupan are columnists for Bloomberg Opinion.

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