ustralia's recent bushfires have licked across the countryside, decimating one of the world's most unique, variegated, and cherished habitats. The fires have killed or wounded an estimated half-billion animals, damaging the homes and cultural vestiges of tribes indigenous to the area along the way. Canberra suffered the worst air quality on earth earlier in January—a grim honor usually reserved for cities like Lahore, Delhi, and Beijing whose populations are each twenty to fifty times greater than that of the Australian capital. The noxious air also enveloped Sydney's harbor, spurring a sharp increase in respiratory-related hospital visits among the city's residents. Yet the fires have not only further revealed the perils of a rapidly warming planet. They have, in addition, cast light on a troubling trend of indolent and irresponsible actions by national governments in the aftermath of natural disasters that is atrophying the trust between themselves and their communities—precisely at the time when it is needed most.
Neither Australia nor any of its fellow G20 nations are on track to meet the cuts in emissions they set during the 2015 Paris Climate Accords. So while countries everywhere are failing to make the reforms that would help address the root cause of intensifying storms, they are also struggling to provide effective relief in their wake. The Australian government's response to the fires was marred by delayed evacuations, a slow distribution of resources, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison's taking a vacation while volunteer firefighters were struggling in the country's interior.
In the United States, while northern California was experiencing its own spasms of wildfires in the Fall of last year, President Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal aid to the state while his government's emergency response agency was working with it closely.
Brazilian President Jair Balsanoro cut budgets across a number of agencies tasked with preventing fires by nearly a quarter in 2019. Then, when the fires engulfed the Amazon Rainforest that August, Balsanoro deployed the military into the Amazon to control the fires. The decision to use the Brazilian armed forces to address a natural disaster was a first in the nation's history.
Intense flooding in Indonesia caused nearly one hundred deaths and caused millions of dollars in property damage. Jakarta residents responded by suing their government, arguing it was responsible for the loss of life and property due its failure to issue any warning about the flood and for the slow rescue effort that followed.
Each country has its own unique dynamics. Collectively, these scenarios raise concerns that governing bodies everywhere have yet to properly address. Further, these scenarios suggest points of tension which—as storms like these become the "new normal"—may tear apart the confidence local communities have in their central authorities.
Disaster relief money is largely controlled by national governments, while localities lack any robust guarantees that financial aid will not be conditioned on making political, economic, or legal concessions to federal officials. This is of particular concern when the local interest runs incongruent with, or poses a threat to, the state’s agenda. The same guarantees ought to be made with respect to deploying medical professionals, search and rescue teams, and transportation services.
As natural disasters worsen, central authorities are primed to have more leeway to exercise emergency powers; indeed, citizens are demanding they do to ensure relief efforts are effective. But these circumstances are also ripe with the potential for overreach. Provided no legal framework adjudicating the scope of the central government's response—as the number of storms increase—the lines separating local and federal jurisdictions could become inappropriately blurred.
The opposite seems to be the more immediate concern. When national government responses are widely perceived as inadequate, a host of new legal questions emerge concerning the relationship between government policy, economic practices, and who bears responsibility for the losses of life and property that occur during or after a natural disaster.
All of this comes at a time when international organizations and multilateral agreements generally have come to be viewed with increased skepticism by citizens and states alike. But even as the effects of a changing climate continue to show just how porous national borders really are, this trend is unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon.
Local officials are always going to be the first respondents to emergencies. Australia's volunteer firefighters are a good example of the heroism communities often display in the face of tragedy; and the outpouring of charitable donations from all over the world testifies to deep wellspring of sympathy. But the moment requires more than acts of courage and generosity. It requires strategic planning, considered foresight, innovative solutions to disaster relief—and trust.
Trust between a government and its people can be exceedingly fragile. Governments the world over are failing to handle that trust with care, and the consequences could be disastrous.