House fire

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.

Climate change

We all know that climate change alone does not cause fires. But it does cause hotter temperatures.

Temperatures are rising. A few days ago they announced that 2019 in Australia was the hottest year on record.

On the 18th of December, they announced that the day before had been the hottest single day on record. The very next day the record was broken again.

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:

Deniers

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.

Response

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.

Since the most serious fires started, our local (Federal Coalition) MP has been tweeting about emissions reductions measures. He sent this one out twice, on 30th and 31st December.

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:

Scott Morrison holding a lump of coal in Parliament, February 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.

ABC News 24 - Eden, NSW, 9:36am, Sunday 5/1/2020

Thousands of people have been displaced. Events and institutions are disrupted. Millions upon millions of animals are dead. Thousands of homes have been lost.

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.)

Climate Summit cartoon

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.

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5 thoughts on “Enough delay. Time for climate action

  1. Nicely pulled together. Despair about our situation is my emotion. This has happened at a very poor time of the political cycle, however, it seems we have somewhat of a dead man walking government at the moment. I recently read that England or the UK has reduced its coal electricity production from just below half in 2012 to now two percent with renewable energy taking over. Clearly Tories sold off their coal mining shares much earlier than our Liberal/National party members have.

  2. Well said Daniel, all your points are valid and obvious to most I would hope. Unfortunately the Murdoch press is fighting a propaganda war that continues to sabotage the best efforts of scientists and progressive minded people to improve the situation.

    I continue to despair at the willingness to put self interest above the common good by many Australians which makes the LNP the party of choice for the majority, in my electorate of Hughes our MP is Craig Kelly who is not fit to run a chook raffle but wins decisively because of the “aspirational” safe conservative seat.

  3. Andrew, you are partly correct. The article stated that the UK now has 38.4% of its electricity produced from gas and 16.8% from nuclear. So it’s not quite true that “renewable energy taking over”. But these sources are a lot clearer than coal (especially brown coal where I live in Victoria).
    Gas exploration is looked upon unfavourably in most states and nuclear will never happen so it’s unlikely we can match the UK in reducing coal so swiftly.

  4. Will this be Australia’s Sandy Hook moment? A clear moment when we see the consequences of our policies, but we turn away?

    Just as in the US on gun ownership, there is a very strong push from vested interests to promote alternative explanations.

    It’s all arsonists, for example, or it’s about lack of hazard reduction burning.

    Even if either was true (they aren’t), notice how these explanations actually explain nothing. They don’t explain why this year is different to previous years. There’s no evidence that arsonists are worse this year than in Black Saturday in 2009, or during the Federation drought. There’s no evidence that there was more hazard reduction burning in the burnt areas in previous decades.

    We need to keep asking those promoting these ‘explanations’ to say how their reason explains why the fires are so much worse this year, and go on for weeks.

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