Australia is preparing to burn – more fossil fuels

Australians are used to seeing messages with advice on preparing for bushfires and other extreme weather at this time of year.

“Amid the Christmas promotions, [we’re] seeing increased warnings about extreme heat and fires and how to cope and stay safe,” Belinda Noble, the founder of climate advocacy organisation Comms Declare, told Al Jazeera.

While there is nothing new about these kinds of public service announcements, the messages have taken on added meaning as the weather becomes more unpredictable and memories of severe bushfires three years ago linger.

“Australia desperately needs national public information campaigns to keep people safe,” Noble told Al Jazeera, stressing that similar campaigns were also needed on how to “reduce emissions and to combat lies about fossil fuels, renewables and climate science”.

Australia passed breakthrough climate laws in March this year, 10 months after a new centre-left Labor government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took office.

“In contrast to our last government,” the new government now “acknowledges that climate change is very real, is with us now and is worsening extreme weather and disasters,” Greg Mullins, the former commissioner of fire and rescue for the state of New South Wales told Al Jazeera.

But, Mullins added, it is “inexplicable that as they strive to reduce emissions, they undo all of their good work by continuing to approve new fossil fuel projects.”

Even as the Albanese government passed its new legislation in March, its annual Resource & Energy Major Project list included 116 new fossil fuel projects, “two more than at the end of 2021”, according to Canberra-based think tank the Australia Institute.

Combined, Australia’s oil and gas expansion plans are the eighth largest of any country, the advocacy organisation Oil Change International said recently.

Many of the planned fuel projects – on land and sea – are facing opposition from Indigenous people, who are seeing the effects of fossil fuel extraction and climate change first-hand.

“My community is facing not just fracking, but mining [and] overgrazing” said Rikki Dank, the director of Gudanji For Country, an Indigenous charity. “On top of that, we are feeling the effects of climate change. The weather patterns are all over the place,” she said.

“There’s not as much rain as there used to be and the heat is becoming almost unbearable,” said Dank, who spoke to Al Jazeera from COP28 in Dubai where she was bringing attention to Australia’s plans to frack her traditional lands.

Fracking or hydraulic fracturing involves the high-pressure injection of liquid into shale rock to release gas.

“We’re seeing a lot of people in Australia lose their homes because it’s becoming too hot or because we can’t live there any more because of the mining or fracking,” she added.

But at a special COP28 meeting where leaders were encouraged to speak off-script on Sunday, Australia’s Climate Minister Chris Bowen backed calls for the global phasing out of fossil fuels.

The comments sparked confusion given Australia’s fossil fuel expansion at home.

“We don’t think of ourselves as a petrostate, but Australia is a bigger fossil fuel exporter than the United Arab Emirates, by far,” Ebony Bennett, the deputy director of the Australia Institute wrote last week, comparing Australia with the host of COP28.

Australia is “the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world,” Bennett added. The country is one of the world’s top exporters of coal with Russia and Indonesia.

‘Your whole world’

While Australia’s messages on the world stage may seem mixed, at home, the messages, at least on the dangers of fire, are much clearer.

A Queensland Fire and Emergency Services advertisement shows images like a warped dog’s bowl and a children’s bike in a burned landscape while a narrator says “your best friend” and “your whole world”.

A fire preparation sign says, 'Sorry guys, you are all too late now!'
A fire preparation sign at the Rural Fire Service (RFS) station in Shannons Flat, Australia says, ‘Sorry guys, you are all too late now!’ in January 2020 [Tracey Nearmy/Reuters]

While more disaster preparedness is welcome, Mullins says recently-announced funding is “still just a drop in the bucket and climate change is causing that bucket to leak.”

The former fire chief who is also the founder of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action says greater efforts are needed to address the growing climate crisis. 

“It doesn’t matter how many helicopters, how many planes, or many trucks you have,” Mullins told Al Jazeera. “We cannot just deal with the damage once it has been done, we need to tackle it at its root cause – which is the continued extraction and burning of coal, oil and gas.

“We must take urgent action now to get emissions plummeting during this crucial decade”, he added, “to give some hope to future generations”.

For Dank, the solutions include drawing on the experience of Indigenous people in caring for their land as a nature-based solution.

“Unfortunately”, there is a “current culture” of “band-aid solutions for how we can fix something that’s making us uncomfortable now as opposed to actually looking at and addressing the problem,” she said.

Meanwhile, Noble says public awareness campaigns are also needed to dispel the fossil fuel industry’s influence.

“Communities need more consistent, accurate and reliable climate information to manage the massive challenges ahead,” said Noble, whose organisation is also campaigning to see misleading fossil fuel advertising banned in Australia.

“There’s no doubt people are anxious,” she added, but it is possible to turn “anxiety into action against the fossil fuel companies causing the extreme heat, fires and storms”.

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