As bushfires rage across the Australian east coast – and large areas of NSW, including Sydney, face a “catastrophic” fire warning – much attention has been directed towards the response of the nation’s political leaders for their steadfast refusal to acknowledge the link between the bushfires and climate change.
Rightly, the public is challenging political leaders to articulate their response to a growing bushfire threat, with three lives lost in the latest events, and with Australia facing longer bushfire seasons and more extreme bushfire conditions fuelled by climate change.
Over the weekend, prime minister Scott Morrison and treasurer Josh Frydenberg both turned to Twitter to offer “thoughts and prayers” to those impacted, or at threat of being impacted, by bushfires in New South Wales and Queensland. Morrison refused to use the words climate change and his government and other conservatives shouted down those who did.
The choice of the “thoughts and prayers” response is quite deliberate. It echoes the ubiquitous and oft-ridiculed response of conservative leaders in the United States to instances of gun violence, and it underlines the current state of political discourse in Australia around climate change and natural disasters.
Leaders have also sought to prevent discussion of climate change when significant parts of the country are under the threat of bushfires, a threat that scientific bodies have repeatedly warned will be amplified by the impacts of climate change.
Radio shock-jock Alan Jones tried to blame The Greens for the bushfires, claiming they had prevented controlled burns – apparently unaware that this has been impossible due to the unique nature of the drought and the very dry conditions.
NSW premier Gladys Berejeklian refused to discuss the links between climate change and bushfires, as she announced that a ‘state of emergency’ had been declared in New South Wales, telling reporters “honestly not today”, when asked to comment on the links.
But her government is also preparing on Tuesday – the day of the catastrophic fire warnings for Sydney – to push through legislation that will prevent future rejections of coal mine developments on the basis of their contributions to global emissions.
The deputy prime minister, and Nationals party leader Michael McCormack, predictably, landed deepest in the gutter when he labelled those linking the bushfires currently impacting New South Wales and Queensland to the science of climate change as the “ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies” in an interview with ABC’s RN Breakfast program.
These were comments labelled “bullshit” by climate scientist and chief executive of Climate Analytics, Dr Bill Hare, who told The Guardian:
“There’s only one word for that really – bullshit. There’s a strong and very well-established connection between climate change and wildfire risk. It’s a foreseeable risk and one we need to plan for, and reduce our emissions to limit and prevent it. His comments are wilfully ignorant and, in a nutshell, bullshit.”
The science on climate change is clear, and the scientific community remains adamant that now is indeed the right time to be talking about the impacts of climate change and how Australian communities will continue to face an ever-worsening threat of bushfire.
Many within the scientific community renewed warnings of the links between climate change and bushfires over the weekend.
“Climate projections estimate an increased frequency in severe Bushfire weather in the future and a lengthening of fire seasons which inevitably will put pressure on Bushfire fighting resources and communities in Bushfire prone areas. Increased use of autonomous technologies in the future could assist fire fighting efforts,” Andrew Gissing, an emergency management expert with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC added.
“It is likely that the fire threat in Northern NSW and South East Queensland will continue for weeks unless significant rainfall occurs assisting fire fighters to extinguish blazes.”
Professor David Bowman, director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania underscored the urgency, stressing that we are running out of time to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and that now is absolutely the right time to be talking about the links between fire and climate change.
“Even though these fires are currently occurring, and people are suffering great hardships, I believe It is now timely and appropriate for a discussion of the linkage between climate change and bushfire to occur, noting we need to acknowledge uncertainties and complexities.
“As a society we are running out of time to adapt to climate change driven bushfires, and policy failure will lead to escalating disasters that have the capacity to eclipse the worst disasters we have experienced,” Bowman said.
Scientists have rightly pointed out that the concerns about climate change are not just motivated by individual instances of bushfires, but also from the ongoing threat that ever-worsening bushfire seasons will pose well into the future under a warmer planet.
“We need to start preparing now for these future risks, and not just the coming months, but the coming years and decades – we cannot keep doing things the same.
“No matter what we think we control, we will also need to be ready for the unexpected, and to do that we need to find a way to embrace uncertainty and plan for the inevitable. The issues are complex, and this is the role of research,” Dr Richard Thornton is CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC said.
“We cannot any longer be sure of what is possible with our seasonal cycles. We need to focus on mitigation from climate change.”
Dr Paul Read of Monash University, who is an expert in bushfire, arson and climate change, said that while it is too early to conclusively determine whether climate change was a driving cause of the current bushfires. However, considering the unprecedented scale of the fires, and the early start of the Australian bushfire season, was willing to predict that climate change would emerge as a significant factor.
“So is it climate change? Jury’s always out when it comes to science, as it should be, but I’d lay bets that it is climate change affecting our seasons. And this is scary for everybody,” Reed said.
“We need to sensibly, gently (but rapidly) adjust our ways of doing economics and politics worldwide, at the same time strengthening our capacity to cope with natural and man-made disasters. Bushfires are, after all, a combination of both.”
Last week, more than 11,000 scientists issued a joint statement declaring that the world in the midst of a climate change emergency, and that unless governments act to limit the impacts of climate change, the world faces the prospect of ‘untold human suffering’.