Fires have ravaged south eastern Australia this summer.
As I write this, cooler weather and even a little rain provided a few days of relief, but warmer weather is on the way. There’s much of the fire season still to come.
26 people are dead.
8.4 million hectares are believed to have burnt – figures in Wikipedia indicate this is the biggest recorded for Australia’s east coast. So far.
Eleven years ago we had the disastrous Black Saturday fires in Victoria, which burnt out about a 20th of the hectares, and left 173 dead.
It seems there were some lessons learnt after Black Saturday. Particularly noticeable was the change from the Stay Or Leave policy, to much stronger language. The emergency warnings are now very forthright, and even quite confronting, including phrases such as:
- Emergency Services will not be able to help you
- Heat will kill you before the fire reaches you
One can only hope that the dire warnings for people to get out of danger areas before the fires approach has saved lives.
But it’s not over yet.
We all know that climate change alone does not cause fires. But it does cause hotter temperatures.
Hotter temperatures contribute to the frequency and ferocity of fires, as well as the length of the fire season.
The fact that serious fires this season started in September, that so much of the country is now ablaze, and intense fires are now commonly creating their own localised weather systems should be ringing alarm bells.
And there were clear warnings:
Climate deniers and conspiracy theorists manage to blame the Greens for a lack of burn offs. As if the Greens have control over anything – they are a minor political player everywhere around the country.
Actual burn figures show that in many areas, extensive hazard reduction burning has occurred – though increasingly, good safe conditions aren’t available – a point repeatedly being made by fire chiefs.
Other conspiracy theorists reckon some fires are deliberately lit to clear land for high speed rail. Seriously.
Much more common is the claim that fires are mostly caused by arsonists, something not backed up by statistics.
And so we come to the Federal Government’s response to all this.
I don’t mean their direct response to the immediate threat – that was slow to get going, with numerous missteps, but seems to be in gear now. I mean their actions on the longer term threats from climate change.
They can claim they’re acting, but they’ve been in power for six years, and emissions have been rising under their watch:
The problem is, ultimately, the Federal Coalition is led by climate sceptics.
It’s really hard to look past this moment from 2017:
As the fires took hold, while Morrison was away, his deputy Michael McCormack finally managed to admit they needed to look at more action on emissions. Morrison then got back from Hawaii and hosed it down.
In some ways, Morrison seems to be the stereotypical conservative. How good is Australia? Everything’s fine. Nothing to see here. Do nothing – which ties into the common conservative theme of small government.
And yet finally, I think people are seeing through this. It’s a shame it took a crisis, but that might be the only silver lining here.
Perhaps it’s easy to be doubtful about climate change when you can’t see it. It’s the (mythical) boiling frog.
Now it’s very, very visible. The skies in many areas have been red from fires. Even in the big cities away from the danger areas, there is smoke in the air.
It can’t be ignored when you can see it happening in front of you. And although the sceptics will look for any excuse, remember, this is just as the climate scientists warned.
If it continues like this, it’s going to get worse. Much worse.
Climate change is here, and it’s got to be stopped. (And there are lots of other tangible benefits to reduced emissions, of course.)
There’s a cost to cutting emissions of course, but there’s also a huge cost not acting.
Australia’s contribution to emissions is small by world standards, but it’s very high per capita, and we can’t expect others to cut theirs if we do nothing.
Worst of all – our government of sceptics has been sabotaging world efforts to cut emissions. (Who says Australia can’t make a difference?)
With Australian public opinion finally changing, will the Federal Coalition pivot, and act, if only to save their political skins?
Will Federal Labor step up, stop defending coal and its billions of dollars of annual subsidies, and be bolder in its ambitions to move Australia forward on this? Ultimately, we need to transition off coal – including helping workers transition to new jobs and industries.
And, assuming the next two fire seasons are not as serious, will the populace remember all this when the next Federal election comes along, two years from now?
One last thing. There is a transport angle on all of this.
- Buzzfeed’s list of unverified and false information about the 2019-2020 fires
- Lead image: Green Wattle Creek bushfire, Sydney, December 2019 – by Helitak430 via Wikimedia
- How to donate to the CFA and affected communities