David Fickling: What Australia’s wildfires can — and can’t — teach a smoky US

Tribune Content Agency

If you were looking for a silver lining in the cloud of smoke that’s descended on New York as wildfires raged through Canada’s forests, consider the effect a similar natural disaster in 2019 and 2020 had on the politics of climate on the opposite side of the world.

Australia has long had a reputation as a climate laggard. A country that vies with Indonesia and Qatar as the biggest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas, its leaders have spent decades blocking environmental action. Former Prime Minister John Howard refused to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. His successor Tony Abbott once dismissed the science of climate change as “absolute crap.” Scott Morrison, the incumbent at the time of the 2019 fires, brandished a lump of coal on the floor of parliament to taunt the Labor opposition.

Just a few months before the start of the fire season, the country’s May 2019 general election was seen as having dealt a decisive blow against green policies. “A perception that Labor was not supportive of the mining industry,” due to its equivocal stance on Indian billionaire Gautam Adani’s Carmichael coal project, cost the party votes in regions dependent on digging up solid fuel, according to the party’s post-mortem into the election. It was released in November just as the fires were hitting disastrous proportions. Fearful of being seen to highlight climate-adjacent issues, Labor and the broader political-media class initially remained largely silent on the fires, even as red smoke and floating ash cloaked Sydney.

The unmistakable devastation of the subsequent fire season, with its infernal images of flame-ringed holiday towns and toxic legacy of health problems, changed all that. Polling done by the Australian National University in early 2020 found that confidence in the federal government fell by 10.9 percentage points over the bushfire period, while the number seeing the environment as a crucial issue rose 8.2 percentage points. Some 77.8% of the population had a friend or family who was directly exposed to the catastrophe.

Images of Morrison holidaying in Hawaii while the fires raged and being heckled by residents of Cobargo, a burnt-out town in the coastal hinterland southeast of the capital Canberra, became emblematic of his collapsing premiership. The 2022 election delivered the greenest parliament on record, with three new Green and six new climate-focused independent MPs added to the 151-member governing House of Representatives. The new government in March passed a bill mandating emissions reductions of 43% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, the most significant environmental legislation in a decade.

That sounds like resounding evidence that the calamity affecting the US right now should stiffen public determination to take action on global warming, even if subsequent elections and court rulings deliver victories for fossil-fuel interests. Don’t get too excited.

For one thing, natural disasters can have a curiously value-free effect on voter behavior. Such events don’t so much cause people to shift toward particular viewpoints, as punish whichever party is in power. (In one famous if contested study, a wave of shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916 damaged President Woodrow Wilson’s re-election campaign, despite the manifest absence of policy implications.) That was bad for the climate-denialist government in Australia in 2019, but might also be bad for the climate-focused government in the US in 2023. An inept response would be likelier to do damage to the Biden administration than to its opponents, as President George W. Bush found after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The effects of disasters can also be limited and perverse. Although support for new coal mines in Australia fell from 45.3% to 37% after the bushfires, those who had backed the industry beforehand and were subsequently directly affected by smoke and fire were more, rather than less likely, to favor them. Gilmore, the Labor-held electorate where footage of Morrison being heckled went viral, saw a counterintuitive swing toward his party and is now the most competitive seat in the country.

Overlay the smoke maps of the northeastern US on electoral outcomes, and it’s clear that many of the worst-affected bits of the country are in parts of New York and New England where Democratic politicians are already dominant. More purple regions such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan have also been affected, but with nothing like the hellish pollution settling over the Hudson.

A 2019 analysis of 73 separate studies on public opinion and climate experiences found that extreme weather only had a weak effect on people’s views, far less than traditional factors such as underlying partisanship. To the limited extent that natural disasters shape the environmental opinions of US voters, it appears to mostly happen to skeptics who are directly affected. Voters in swing states, however, aren’t the ones breathing in soot right now.



David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.