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How Climate Change Is Affecting Australia's Fires


Greg Mullins is the former commissioner for Fire and Rescue for the state of New South Wales. He's joined other emergency leaders demanding the government tackle climate change, which they say is supercharging the fires. We spoke to him just before he headed out to fight the fires. I asked him how the government is handling the crisis.

GREG MULLINS: So our national government - they're missing in action in terms of leadership, and it's all because the penny has dropped with the Australian public that our out-of-control wildfires are driven by climate change. This has been a 20-year trend. We have 10 million acres on fire in one state alone. Our national government doesn't want to know about climate change. They're doing very little to help the states fight these fires.

FADEL: Why is the government - or why has the government been so hostile in pushing for climate change reforms in Australia?

MULLINS: Look; we have a prime minister who was infamous for holding up a lump of coal in Parliament, joking and giggling like a schoolboy, saying, look; this won't hurt you, everybody. This is the basis of our economy. And a couple of prime ministers have lost their jobs over climate change. So he's rested (ph) onto his narrative about doing nothing about climate change and we don't really emit much in Australia.

Our emissions have been going up every year under this government, not down. And as fire chiefs, we've been watching the wildfire situation, our cyclones, our hurricanes, our storms, our floods get worse and worse as extreme weather just gets more and more extreme. So we have areas burning in Australia that have never burned before. We have trees in Tasmania - Huon pine, so they're 3,000 years old. They have no fire scars on them. We have tropical rainforests burning.

FADEL: You know, the people of Australia, in the end, elected this conservative government. They rejected politicians pushing for climate change reforms. Has anything shifted?

MULLINS: There's a lot of debate in Australia, but the public is screaming for action now. It just seems to me that our prime minister does not have his finger on the pulse of the nation because they're seeing things they've never seen before. They're frightened. People in Sydney are all coughing because we're covered in smoke. Australian cities are just - you can't see for more than 200 yards. It's just horrific. And we've lost about 1,500 homes in New South Wales alone. So people are waking up, but it seems our government and our prime minister are not.

FADEL: So let's say Australia does turn a corner. In the end, it's a continent with a tiny carbon footprint, a country of some 26 million people. So if China, India and the U.S. aren't going to reduce emissions, what difference does it make if Australia changes?

MULLINS: So that's been an argument that the prime minister has used. Now, to put it into perspective, out of 200 countries, we're No. 15. So we're not small in the scheme of things. If you add in the coal that we export - we're one of the biggest exporters of coal, oil and gas - we're No. 5.

Look; Australia has always punched above its weight internationally. And what I mean by that is we've taken on issues like apartheid in South Africa, nuclear disarmament. We've taken a moral stance. As a nation, we've always tried to do the right thing. And I think a lot of Australians are looking at our government at the moment and thinking, where is the moral leadership? How can our prime minister go to President Trump or to other countries and say, look; our country is burning; we're doing our bit; you now need to do your bit? We can't do that at the moment because we don't have the moral or ethical standing to be able to make those phone calls.

FADEL: Now, you yourself are a firefighter, and you're headed for the fires. Do you have a sense of when they might be under control?

MULLINS: No, I don't. And, look; most wildfire firefighting in Australia is done by volunteers. And the urban fire departments also send strike teams - so five engines - out to assist. And then we have forestry and national parks. That's a united force.

I was 39 years as a professional firefighter and ended up chief for 13 (ph) years. I've gone back to my roots where I started with my father as a volunteer wildland firefighter. So I've been fighting fires for 47 years. I've never seen anything like this. We saw it coming. All the 29 other ex-chiefs and I have seen this coming for the last 20 years - the bad seasons becoming more frequent.

Around the world, everything's heating up. We're getting wildfires in countries that never had them before, like the U.K., Greenland. This is a worldwide problem. This is climate change in action, and everybody needs to sit up and take notice.

FADEL: That was Greg Mullins, former commissioner for Fire and Rescue for the Australian state of New South Wales. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.