Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison cut short a visit to a fire-ravaged town on Thursday amid a barrage of criticism from residents.
Bush fires reached Cobargo, a small town near the coast in southern New South Wales, on Monday night, burning down the main street and killing a father and son.
Devastated residents, some of whom had lost their houses and livelihoods, vented their frustration at Morrison, a vocal supporter of Australia’s coal industry and a climate change skeptic.
In a video captured by Australia’s ABC news broadcaster, one resident glared at Morrison and told him she would only shake his hand if he provided more funds for Australia’s fire service, which relies primarily on volunteers.
“So many people here have lost their homes. We need more help,” she added, as he moved on.
“You control the funding, and we were forgotten,” a woman in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt walking a goat shouted at Morrison.
“You won’t be getting any votes down here, buddy,” shouted an angry man. “No Liberal [Party] votes. You’re out, son. You are out.”
As Morrison headed to his car, one Cobargo resident had the final say.
“You’re not welcome here,” he shouted in the video.
In response to the heckling, Morrison told Australia’s ABC news broadcaster: “I understand the very strong feelings people have.”
“They’ve lost everything, and there are still some very dangerous days ahead,” he said. “My job is to ensure that we steady things through these very difficult days and support the states in the response that they are providing.”
Morrison faced criticism last month for taking a vacation to Hawaii while the fires burned. He apologized and returned home, but many Australians remain incensed at what they see as government neglect.
Since September, fires have killed 18 people and destroyed over 1,200 homes in New South Wales and the adjacent Victoria state. This week, at least another 17 people in these areas were reported missing, and about 4,000 people were unable to escape a beach town in Victoria. The government has declared a state of emergency there for the first time.
The fires have burned more than 14.6 million acres — an area nearly the size of West Virginia.
Bush fires are a yearly occurrence in parts of dry Australia. But scientists have tied the longevity and severity of this year’s fires to climate change in a country that relies heavily on carbon-producing industries such as coal. The fires began earlier than average, and heat waves in the fall and winter made for even more combustible conditions. December was one of two hottest months on record in Australia, and 2019 was the hottest and driest year yet. Dec. 18 was Australia’s hottest day ever recorded, beating the record set the day before.
Morrison has called on Australians to be patient and rebuffed criticisms that his government hasn’t done enough to reduce emissions.
“Morrison is firmly part of Liberal Party politicians who are outright opposed to taking any steps that could compromise Australia’s coal economy,” said Matto Mildenberger, an assistant professor of political science and environmental politics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who is writing a book on Australia’s climate politics. “He’s opposed to climate reforms and committed to the fossil fuels economy.”
In November, the prime minister pledged to outlaw climate protests, saying they disrupted the economy. Just before heading off on his Hawaiian vacation, Morrison’s government announced plans to underwrite two gas-fired power stations; he also didn’t rule out new coal-fired power plants.
“I am quite agnostic, just as long as it is reliable and it is cheaper … You deal with the environmental challenge, you make sure you keep your economy growing and get power prices down,” he said, according to The Guardian, adding, “There’ll be lots of shouting noises elsewhere, but I tend to listen to those quiet still voices.”
Morrison used similar language in May, when he praised “quiet Australians” for helping him win reelection. Morrison’s Liberal Party did well in Queensland, where there’s a plan in the works to build one of the world’s largest coal mines.
A 2019 study by Sydney University found that 78% of Australians support reducing fossil fuels and 64% approve of higher taxes to do so. Sixty-two percent of those who voted for Morrison said they support reducing fossil fuel use. The fires are among several Australian environmental crises — including the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and an ongoing drought.
Before now, though, the sentiments expressed in polls haven’t had much effect on national politics.
“Climate change has rarely been the ballot question,” Mildenberger said. It’s a trend he’s noted in research around the world — anti-climate policy politicians have been elected despite populations showing support for government action on climate.
That, though, could also be shifting. For people already concerned about climate change, said Mildenberger, events like the bush fires are “going to make climate change a bigger part of the narrow set of questions that they are using to make political and electoral decisions.”