- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Daisy Jeffrey was 17 years old when climate change started to affect her everyday life. Living in the metropolis of Sydney, global warming was already a source of anxiety, with regular reports of worsening drought impacting farmers in rural areas, but it “felt like a far-off thing.” That changed in 2019, the hottest and driest year in Australia's history.
Rising temperatures and a three-year-long drought caused unprecedented wildfires to break out in August, lasting until March 2020, summertime in the Southern Hemisphere. The smoke enveloped Sydney. In fact, it reached all the way to New Zealand, more than 2,500 miles away.
“Suddenly, our cities were covered in this thick, orangey, you know, yellow smoke,” Jeffrey told Yahoo News. “My brother, who has asthma — there were a number of issues for people with respiratory problems. Up and down the coast, it was burning. People were losing their homes. There were a couple of friends who nearly lost their homes and had to evacuate. It was just horrific.”
According to scientists, “global warming most certainly played some role in producing the worst fires in Australia’s recent history,” Physics Today reported in 2020.
The same multiyear drought that caused the fires was what inspired Jeffrey to take action the year before the fires struck.
“Although I couldn’t see it in the city I was in, I could actually see it everywhere else,” she said. “I went northwest into the Outback, into the desert. And usually in springtime, you get fields of flowers and it’s just stunning, it’s like the desert just bursts into life. And there was just nothing. Every few kilometers or so, there would be a farm or a station raising money for water. We’d go past water holes that were drying up and we’d see anywhere from 50 to 100 kangaroos either dead or dying around that water hole because it was their last water resource.”
Jeffrey joined the School Strike 4 Climate movement in 2018, the year it was started by Greta Thunberg in Sweden. She helped to organize and spoke at a protest that drew over 80,000 participants in Sydney and more than 300,000 throughout Australia.
“Like many other young people, I was really scared about the future, and I could see that not only was not enough being done, but that people in power — particularly places of monetary and political power — were actually fighting quite hard against ambitious climate action,” Jeffrey told Yahoo News. “And so I saw no alternative but to get involved and fight for climate action.”
Jeffrey’s commitment to climate activism has only intensified. She attended the United Nations Climate Conference in Madrid in December 2019, also known as COP25, and in 2020 she published “On Hope,” a book on climate activism.
But while Australia has a vibrant youth climate movement, the national government remains opposed to taking action on climate change. At the recent U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Australia was unwilling to join a number of initiatives to keep hope alive for staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of average global warming.
The Australian government opposed language calling for action to reduce emissions in the next decade and it didn’t want to return to the negotiating table in 2022 with stronger climate action pledges. It refused to join 39 countries including the United States, the U.K. and Canada that pledged to phase out financing for coal abroad, and it refused to join the more than 100 nations that promised to reduce methane emissions.
As the Guardian reported, Australia’s plan to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, “included no new policies and relied on voluntary action from business and consumers.” It also simply assumed as-yet undiscovered technological innovation will miraculously cut its emissions. In Glasgow, activists from the Climate Action Network dubbed Australia a “colossal fossil” for being the most unhelpful nation present.
Experts say that, after the United States, Australia is the industrialized democracy that is most reluctant to proactively combat climate change. Since President Biden took office and resurrected American climate leadership following four years of disengagement under former President Trump, Australia might actually now be the nation with the most retrograde views on climate change. The recently released Climate Change Performance Index, a rating of climate policies in 60 countries plus the European Union released by activist organizations including the Climate Action Network, ranked Australia dead last.
The devastation of the brush fires and the Australian government’s refusal to address the climate crisis is the subject of the documentary “Burning,” which premiered last Friday on Prime Video. The film, produced by Propagate and Amazon Studios, and executive produced by Cate Blanchett’s Dirty Films, features terrifying shots of a raging orange-red inferno, days that look like night from the black smoke blocking the sun, heart-rending footage of burned koalas and kangaroos, and sobering interviews with survivors.
Among the film’s most chilling moments is hearing from the parents of babies born during or shortly after the fires: because mothers breathed in smoke while pregnant, their babies were often born prematurely, underweight and with underdeveloped lungs, just like when a mother smokes during pregnancy.
The film’s director Eva Orner is originally from Australia, but she now lives in Los Angeles. (She won an Academy Award in 2007 for “Taxi to the Dark Side,” a documentary about the war on terror.)
“I’d been watching it from about August when it started, watching it from America” she told Yahoo News about the 2019 brushfire season. “I remember thinking, ‘it’s winter there, it’s not even spring yet,’ and this is about the earliest I ever remember a fire season starting.”
She went to visit her family for Christmas and flew into the eye of the storm.
“It felt like the whole country was on fire,” she recalled. “It affected everyone. It was relentless.”
“By the time we left, we flew out of Sydney, I was there for a week, and I remember flying back to L.A., getting on the plane, and my eyes were watering, my throat was sore and we were coughing,” she said. “By the time we landed in L.A., I thought this was an important story to tell.”
“Burning” interweaves the story of the fires with the interviews and news footage about Australia’s climate politics and policies. “Australia’s a pretty conservative country, and that’s a reason I wanted to make this film,” said Orner.
“Australia emerged from COP ... an absolute climate change pariah,” Orner said, referring to the Glasgow climate change conference. “Scott Morrison, our current prime minister, is very much responsible.”
That’s because, like the Republican Party in the U.S., Australia’s Liberal Party — which, confusingly, is actually the more conservative of the country’s major political parties and is currently in power — advocates continued fossil fuel extraction and consumption. Australia has large fossil fuel reserves and Morrison argues that the economic benefits of exploiting those resources outweighs climate change concerns. Immediately after the conference wrapped up in Glasgow, Morrison said coal will be burning in Australia for “decades to come.”
“The fossil fuel industry is so heavily steeped in our politics,” Audrey Quicke, a climate and energy researcher at the Australia Institute, an independent think tank based in Canberra, the Australian capital. Australia is the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and the second-largest exporter of coal after Indonesia. A recent Australia Institute report found the country has “72 major coal projects under development that would double current production” and “44 major new gas and oil projects under development.”
The Australian Labour Party, the major left-of-center party, is more in favor of action to combat climate change. But whereas right-leaning parties in other wealthy democratic nations such as Germany and the U.K. are increasingly in favor of shifting from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy, the issue remains polarized in Australia.
“It’s pretty partisan,” said Quicke. “[The Liberal Party] have made it fairly clear that they are not a party that is going to be putting forth progressive climate policies.”
There is one key difference between Australia and the United States: While Australian conservatives might oppose swift and ambitious climate action, they generally do not deny climate science, nor have they withdrawn the country from United Nations Framework Convention on Change Change, the treaty through which the Paris Agreement and the Glasgow Climate Pact were negotiated.
Part of the reason for the Australian ruling party’s rhetorical moderation compared to American climate science deniers such as Trump, is that large majorities of the Australian public are concerned about climate change and in favor of taking action. According to the Australia Institute’s Climate of the Nation 2021 survey, 82 percent of Australians “are concerned climate change will result in more bushfires, more droughts and flooding, and animal and plant species extinction” and the same percentage “support a phaseout of coal-fired power stations.” And in a poll released in May by the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, 74 percent of Australians believe that “the benefits of taking further action on climate change will outweigh the costs.”
Especially in light of these numbers, Australian climate activists are frustrated by their government’s inaction, but mobilization on climate change has also been impeded by the pandemic.
“The fires were a real horror, to the point that people felt that they could no longer sit down and be apathetic towards it,” said Jeffrey. “Unfortunately, with COVID, everyone’s attention is swept away by another global crisis that is affecting us.”
But, she added, climate change is also an immediate threat. “We can’t afford to look away from the climate crisis, because it is killing people,” she said.