Record Climate-Fueled Wildfires Engulf Australia in Smoke

As world leaders gather to address the climate crisis in Madrid, massive wildfires have engulfed Australia in flames and smoke. More than 100 climate-fueled blazes have killed at least six people and pushed air quality levels in Sydney to 12 times hazardous levels. Thousands braved extreme air pollution Wednesday to protest the government’s climate inaction outside Sydney Town Hall. As Democracy Now! broadcasts live from inside the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid, Spain, we speak with Australian environmental scientist Bill Hare, director of Climate Analytics and a coordinator of the Climate Action Tracker, which monitors global progress toward the Paris Agreement. The group’s new report shows the world is on track to warm by 2.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, double the rate scientists say is needed to limit the worst impacts of climate change.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from inside the U.N. climate summit here in Madrid, Spain. As world leaders have gathered here to address the climate crisis, massive wildfires have engulfed Australia in flames and smoke. More than a hundred climate-fueled blazes have killed at least six people and pushed air quality levels in Sydney to 12 times hazardous levels. This year is the worst wildfire season in Australia’s history. On Wednesday, thousands braved toxic black smoke and extreme air pollution to protest the government’s climate inaction outside Sydney’s Town Hall.

PROTESTER: We are here because we care about the future of our children and their children’s children. We’re going to send a message to our leaders in our country that we are now going to stand up to say, “We are here, and we had enough!”

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we are joined here in Madrid, Spain, by the Australian environmental scientist Bill Hare, director of Climate Analytics and a coordinator of the Climate Action Tracker, which monitors global progress towards the Paris Agreement. They have just just released a report showing the world is on track to warm by 2.8 degrees Celsius — about 5 degrees Fahrenheit — by the end of the century.

Bill Hare, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

BILL HARE: Thanks for having me. Great.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s start in your country, in Australia. I mean, you have Sydney, people’s smoke alarms are going off all over because of the smoke that is pouring in. Explain what’s happening all over the country.

BILL HARE: Well, we have an intense drought going on in southeastern Australia, high heat waves, extreme lack of rainfall, and that’s causing vegetation, forests to dry out. And we’re getting the most extreme fires that we’ve ever seen early in the season. It’s not even properly summer yet. And much of the east coast of Australia is up in flames.

The real tragedy about this is that this is a problem that’s been foreseen by climate scientists now for a long time. And overall, the government has absolutely failed to respond. It’s actually an emergency going on, and the federal government has really failed to acknowledge that there’s actually a crisis. Firefighters are asking for more resources, and the government is saying, “No, you’ve got enough. And firefighters actually enjoy being out there.” So, people are really entitled to be extremely angry in Australia about the lack of action by the government and the lack of real concern demonstrated by it towards the extreme dangers that we’re facing.

It’s not just fires. We actually have extreme water shortages emerging. Sydney is moving to high-stage water restrictions. Places on the south coast of New South Wales that have never really been dry are simply beginning to run out of water. And inland towns are having to ship in water or find emergency sources of water. We’ve never seen anything like it. And again, it’s a tragedy because this is a crisis that’s been foretold by the scientific community, in some cases, for decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the areas that are hardest hit?

BILL HARE: Well, one of the things that’s most upsetting, actually, is the areas that are really hard hit should never actually be burning. In some cases, they haven’t burned, in the case of the forests, for several hundred thousand years, in a few cases. And these areas are normally wet. They’re moist. They’re amongst the greenest parts of Australia. And they’re simply drying out with this extensive drought. They’re beautiful parts of the country, where people’s lifestyles are the classic Australian thing, let out in the bush, enjoying nature, in small towns, and they’re simply going up in smoke.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the connection between these fires and global warming?

BILL HARE: Well, as the world is warming, we’re seeing higher temperatures. We’re seeing more extensive droughts. We’re seeing declines of rainfall. And this is causing vegetation to dry out and create conditions where early-season burns are happening. Australia is not the only place. We’ve seen the record destructive fires in California and other parts of the world in the last year, so it’s not as though it’s an isolated phenomenon. We know it’s caused by climate change. We know the linkage. And we know what we need to do about it, which is to reduce emissions globally so that we get onto a pathway to limit warming to one-and-a half degrees, the limit that’s embedded in the Paris Agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Morrison, your prime minister, very much, it sounds like, from the U.S. end, in line with President Trump. Would you call him a climate change denier? What have been his policies? And what are the Australian people saying to him now?

BILL HARE: Well, Scott Morrison is beginning to acknowledge that climate change exists, but in many senses he remains a climate denier, because a modern climate denier also denies the need to do anything about problems. And in this case, Scott Morrison is denying the need to actually go further. And worse, he keeps claiming that Australia is actually reducing its emissions, when it’s not. He keeps claiming that Australia is going to meet the Paris Agreement goals it set, when it’s not. And he’s basically resorting to accounting tricks and tactics to actually make the case Australia doesn’t have to do anything. In fact, Australia is relying on a 30-year-old accounting trick, in this place, at this COP in Madrid, to say, “We don’t have to do any more.”

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hare, you have just released a report. Can you talk about what you found?

BILL HARE: Well, the report we’ve released is one we do annually for the Climate Action Tracker, which is a project with the New Climate Institute. And we show the total effect of what countries are promising and actually doing in the real economy. And what we show with this report is that with current policies put all together around the world, we’re heading toward 3 degrees warming, maybe more. In other words, we are not seeing any real progress on reducing emissions. There are some bright spots. That’s true. The growth of renewables, etc., is happening. We see some countries, mainly poor ones, moving forward. But the larger emitters are actually failing to really take action. That’s what our report is showing, that after many years of negotiations, we are now in a rather depressing situation where, at this COP, here in Madrid, we simply don’t see enough ambition.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about coal, what you talk about, the addiction to coal?

BILL HARE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the worst perpetrators?

BILL HARE: Well, nearly everyone’s been in the coal game — the United States, Great Britain, Australia, China. So, the thing that’s worrying us now is who is the slowest moving out of coal. We see already some progress in China in the last few years, but that’s flattened off. So we have reservations about the growth of coal in China. It should be going down. It’s stabilizing. If it doesn’t go down, we’re in big trouble. We’re seeing countries like Australia continuing to promote, actively, vigorously, the growth of the global coal market. There are plenty of countries that are basically not moving forward. The U.K. is a bright spot, phasing out coal in 2023. There are others that are moving forward, as well. We also see, you know, a global leader, if you like, on renewable energy like India potentially moving into a Paris Agreement-compatible goal. But a concern out there is India’s extensive plans for coal investment. If India goes forward with that, there’s simply no way that India can be Paris-compatible or that the world can limit warming to one-and-a-half degrees.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bill Hare, President Trump says he’s pulling the U.S. out of this Paris climate agreement.

BILL HARE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: We just played former Mayor Bloomberg refusing to take questions at his press availability yesterday. But he said, “I’m here because the White House isn’t.” In fact, the White House is here behind the scenes. What is the U.S. doing? And what is the effect of the U.S. pulling out?

BILL HARE: Well, I think that for the first time, in this COP, I think the — I can see rather extensive negative consequences from the U.S. withdrawal. I think it’s beginning to sink in. So a lot of countries that would rather not do anything, or countries that are going slow, are finding the U.S. pullout as an excuse to amplify that message and to say, “Well, if the U.S. is out, we shouldn’t move forward.” So that’s having quite a negative effect now. The delegation here is not having a big impact itself. It’s much more about the larger politics of the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Agreement that’s having this negative political effect on the process.

I don’t think that has to be, because if you look at the big countries — China, India, the European Union and others — who could move forward, then they would have the potential to rise up and move beyond the politics of the U.S. withdrawal. And, in fact, if you think about it, there’s a big economic advantage in doing so, because we all know, those of us who study the area, that actually getting onto the Paris Agreement pathway, with renewables, efficiency, electric vehicles, is one of the biggest economic opportunities the world has ever seen. And those that get in and make the markets will be those that benefit. So, actually, the downside is, in the long run, on the U.S. side. If the U.S. is out of the game technologically, it will ultimately lose.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Bill Hare, you’re a scientist, and you run Climate Analytics. But the level of protest here, young people, indigenous elders, people from all over the world, can you talk about what this means for scientists right now? Is this an unusual nexus of people that perhaps you didn’t value as much before?

BILL HARE: Well, I don’t think it’s true that scientists didn’t value this before. I think that for scientists it’s an affirmation of what we’ve all been saying. But it’s also extremely upsetting to have worked in a field for decades, find your predictions coming true, and find politicians failing or have failed to take action on it.

And I think people coming here are angry. I mean, I have seen more tears at this COP than I’ve ever seen in the previous 24 COPs. This is the crying COP. We’re having people coming from small island states whose islands are going under, absolutely devastated, almost panicking about the state of the threat they face. And we’re seeing many others, the youth, etc., coming extremely upset that what they’ve learned about climate change, what they’ve learned the politicians already knew and have done nothing about, and nothing has happened. So, they’re entitled to be angry and upset. And I think we can all hope that this translates into political pressure on governments to actually do something.

AMY GOODMAN: Have any developed countries met their goals? And what about the developing world?

BILL HARE: Well, a number of countries are coming close to meeting their goals. The European Union is close. And the question is: Are the goals adequate? And the answer is, in nearly all cases, the goals are not. In developing countries, some are also getting close to their goals, like India is on a 2-degree pathway. It’s getting close to doing that, maybe even going better. So, yes, there are positive examples that are working. But the bigger picture is, in general, not. It’s just not moving fast enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Glasgow — what do you want to see happening? This next year, before the Glasgow U.N. COP

BILL HARE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — is the five-year review of the Paris climate agreement.

BILL HARE: Yes. It’s a major global moment, 2020. We agreed in Paris that all countries would put forward more ambitious national targets in order to get close to the Paris goal. So we really have to make, when it comes to climate ambition, the sun shine in Glasgow at the end of 2020. There has to be a major global movement next year to encourage — compel, if you like — countries to come up with really big improvements in their ambition, because if we don’t see that happen in Glasgow, then I think people are entitled to be extremely pessimistic about our ability to solve this entire problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned about going back to Australia?

BILL HARE: I’m very concerned. And I find the situation in Australia very upsetting. And many do. I think people are really angry. I’m concerned about what’s happening to the environment. It’s simply devastating. You’ve talked about forest fires, but our coral reefs are going under. The Great Barrier Reef; on the west coast, the lesser-known Ningaloo Reef; and north, are going under from coral bleaching. We’re seeing enormous problems happening with biodiversity. We have 400 kilometers of dead mangroves in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The scientists in my community are saying we’re beginning to see ecosystem collapse.

But what we are not seeing is political leadership from either of the major parties. The Scott Morrison party is in denial on climate change. The Labor Party is trying to have a bet either way. Which side of history do they want to be on? The right side or the wrong side? And they’re having a bet either way. So, one day they talk about doing something about climate change; the next day they talk about coal exports as being the future for our economy, which it simply cannot be if we’re going to solve this problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hare, we want to thank you so much for being with us, is the director — he is the director of Climate Analytics, visiting scientist at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, one of the coordinators of the Climate Action Tracker, which monitors global progress toward the Paris Agreement, from Australia.

When we come back, back in the United States, the House has introduced articles of impeachment against President Trump. We’ll speak with California Congressmember Ro Khanna. Stay with us.