Firefighting aircraft in action © serpeblu (shutterstock)
Australia burns. Whole areas destroyed, buildings burned down, thousands of people evacuated, countless animals dead. No end in sight. PM Morrison promises help – but also faces criticism.
Australia is burning – millions of hectares of land have already been destroyed by ongoing and recurring bushfires. Australia's Catholic bishops' conference responded to the devastating fires with a "national initiative". Speaking of a "horror" that "confronts us with our powerlessness before the devastating force of nature," Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the bishops' conference, said in a statement released this week.
The horror will continue in the coming days. After a brief respite from cooler temperatures and some rain, weather experts predict temperatures will rise again to at least 40 degrees over the weekend. This also increases the risk of forest fires again.
Currently, more than 300 fires are blazing in New South Wales and Victoria. At least 25 people have died in flames since fires broke out in October. 10.6 million hectares of forest and scrubland fell victim to the fire. This corresponds to the area of Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg. More than 2.000 buildings have been destroyed so far, including a Catholic church and other church properties. Thousands of people had to be evacuated.
More than one billion wildlife burned?
University of Sydney terrestrial ecology expert Chris Dickman now estimates the number of wild animals burned at more than one billion. For many years, Australia has had "the highest rate of mammals in danger of extinction in the world," he said. "It is events like this that can accelerate the extinction of a number of other species."
The forest fires are fuelling the controversial debate on climate change that has been going on in Australia for many years now. The majority of the public, media and scientists see global warming as a major cause of the drought that has lasted for nearly two years and is now acting as an accelerant to the fire. However, conservative Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejects any link between wildfires and climate change.
Critics accuse him of giving the Australian coal industry a higher priority than protecting the public from the effects of climate change. In late December, Morrison rejected putting jobs at risk and abandoning "traditional industries" through "reckless climate targets". Coal mining is Australia's most important economic factor. Three-quarters of coal, worth the equivalent of 42 billion euros, is exported.
The head of government also aroused displeasure with both his Christmas vacation in Hawaii and his participation in the opulent New Year's Eve celebration, complete with fireworks, in Sydney.
Several prime ministers of both the conservative Liberal Party and the Labor Party with modern climate policy programs have been toppled in the past decade by tone-setting climate change deniers in politics, the media and the coal industry.
Catholic initiatives stand by those affected
One of the most influential of them was for a long time the former Archbishop of Melbourne and later Sydney Cardinal George Pell, who has since been sentenced to six years in prison for sexual abuse.
Most recently, Prime Minister Morrison announced the establishment of a national agency for reconstruction with an initial budget of the equivalent of about 1.2 billion euros. Many Catholic, ecumenical, interfaith and secular initiatives also stand with those affected.
With its "national initiative", the Catholic Bishops' Conference is now breaking new ground. Typically, bishops responded to such challenges at the parish or diocesan level, Archbishop Coleridge said. "But the scale of this crisis requires a national response from the whole church to complement and coordinate what is happening on the ground," Coleridge said. The Archbishop of Brisbane also stressed, "A truly Catholic response to a crisis of this magnitude must draw strength from prayer, which inspires concrete and compassionate action."