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As Australia Burns, Its Leaders Trade Insults

SYDNEY, Australia — When a mass shooting shattered Australia in 1996, the country banned automatic weapons. In its first years of independence, it enacted a living-wage law. Stable retirement savings, national health care, affordable college education — Australia solved all these issues decades ago.

But climate change is Australia’s labyrinth without an exit, where its pragmatism disappears.

The wildfires that continued raging on Wednesday along the country’s eastern coast have revealed that the politics of climate in Australia resist even the severe pressure that comes from natural disaster.

Instead of common-sense debate, there are culture war insults. The deputy prime minister calls people who care about climate change “raving inner-city lunatics.” Another top official suggests that supporting the Greens party can be fatal. And while the government is working to meet the immediate need — fighting fires, delivering assistance — citizens are left asking why more wasn’t done earlier as they demand solutions.

“We still don’t have an energy policy, we don’t have effective climate policy — it’s really very depressing,” said Susan Harris Rimmer, an associate professor at Griffith Law School.

“Coal is our N.R.A.,” said Ms. Harris Rimmer, referring to the National Rifle Association, which has stymied changes to gun laws in the United States even as mass shootings have become shockingly common. “They have total control over Parliament.”

The comparison has its limits. Coal is not enshrined in the Constitution, as a right to bear arms is in the United States, nor is it a consumer product. But like guns in America, coal helped define the country in its early years of settlement — and is still an outsize presence in Australian life.

Even firefighters, who scramble the class and urban-rural divide that the government often tries to exploit, have tried to tell officials that they need to confront the way that the changing climate supercharges the already dangerous threat of fires.

“We’ve seen these incidents becoming larger and more intense,” said Leighton Drury, a fire union official in New South Wales. “It would be very silly for any politician or any leader to keep their head in the ground and say we don’t need to do anything here.”

Nonetheless, for now, that is what the government is doing. Mr. Morrison, who in the past has made it clear that Australia’s economic prosperity comes first, has repeatedly argued in recent days that now is not the time to discuss climate policy or politics. Photographed hugging fire victims, he has sought to focus on emotional and financial support.

Joëlle Gergis, a climate scientist and author, said that “it wastes the opportunity to explain to the Australian public what we’re seeing in climate extremes.”

Unfortunately, more opportunities are on the way. Strong winds and high temperatures are predicted for this weekend, leading fire officials to warn that the blazes already burning will spread, while new conflagrations will produce more demands for help.

The pressure on the Australian government to do for the climate what it’s done for other policy problems will only grow with the flames.

Isabella Kwai and Jamie Tarabay contributed reporting.

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