Rural Fire Service firefighters extinguish a fire on a property in Moruya, Australia on Jan. 23, 2020.
Sam Mooy—Getty Images
January 24, 2020 4:15 AM EST

Australian wildfires that have razed thousands of homes and blackened an area about the size of England may also create the nation’s first climate refugees.

That’s the view of Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, who said insurance companies are no longer covering homes in fire-prone areas as the continent becomes drier and hotter. That’s the first step to an area becoming uninhabitable, he said in an interview on Bloomberg TV Friday.

“We’re seeing the beginning stages of monumental, catastrophic climate changes that will ultimately drive people away from large inhabited regions of this continent,” Mann said.

The nation is beginning to question the cost of rebuilding more than 3,000 homes that have been damaged or destroyed by the months-long wildfires that have claimed at least 31 lives.

While the government has acknowledged that climate change has played a role in the severity of the crisis, it has rejected demands to take stronger steps to curb CO2 emissions amid fierce criticism at home and abroad over its environmental policies. Instead, Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists the nation must become more resilient to the impacts of a changing climate.

The government’s strong backing of the coal industry, one of the country’s biggest export earners, meant it was supporting policies that would lead to higher emissions, Mann said. Adani’s controversial Carmichael project, which was approved in June, has the potential to double Australia’s coal-based carbon emissions at a time when deep cuts are needed to prevent catastrophic warming, he added.

“We all care about our children and grandchildren, we should want to leave behind a habitable planet for them and future generations,” Mann said. “Kids have been out there demonstrating, striking against school, trying to raise awareness. We need to have their backs.”

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