Let's talk bushfires and climate politics | RenewEconomy

Let’s talk bushfires and climate politics

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The thought that bushfire emergencies in spring could become more common is very uncomfortable. That’s why right now – in the middle of a scary, hard to control bushfire that threatens homes and lives in NSW – is exactly when we should talk about climate change and how Australia is actively contributing to making it worse.

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We need to talk.

It’s easy to understand why there’s widespread support for politicians and others who argue we shouldn’t talk about climate change in the middle of a bushfire emergency.

When you’re fighting to keep your house, grieving over the loss of a loved one or putting your life on the line to protect others lives and property, people talking about climate policy or how these kinds of events will become more common and more severe is very uncomfortable.

This very human response should be understood and people who are suffering loss, or fear of it, should be treated with sensitivity. That’s an argument about how we talk about it, but certainly not a reason to avoid doing so. This is actually the perfect time to talk about climate change and about climate policy – it couldn’t really be better.

People don’t like talking about uncomfortable things. It makes us feel, well, uncomfortable. The thought that major bushfire emergencies in spring could become more common, with people dying and houses and communities being destroyed, is very uncomfortable. The fact that we in Australia are making a disproportionately large contribution to the problem by polluting more per capita than any other developed country and now plan a massive expansion in our coal exports which, when burnt, will make climate impacts worse around the world, is particularly uncomfortable. But it’s still true.

That’s why, right now, in the middle of a scary, hard to control bushfire emergency that threatens homes and lives is exactly when we should talk about it.  Right now, while we’re paying attention to the reality of our pollution’s results, rather than thinking about it as some long-term global risk we can emotionally detach from. Right now, while we’re facing climate change for what it is – an expensive, disruptive, dangerous risk to our quality of life. A risk that we are actively contributing to making worse.

Members of Tony Abbott’s new conservative government, including Cabinet ministers, have been strident in their attacks on those who raise this connection. This is unsurprising given they have a lot to lose if people accept it.

Of course no one can blame the government for these bushfires nor draw a direct causal relationship between any particular fires and climate change. But this is one of NSW’s worst bushfire emergencies, referred to by state fire fighters as “unparalleled” given the season, with a state of emergency declaration allowing authorities to forcibly remove people, cut electricity and water supplies, and demolish buildings. Sure, we’ve always have bad fires but with one this big, in the middle of spring and coming after Australia’s hottest ever September, you would, to use a great Australian phrase, have to be a “flaming drongo” (complete idiot) not to be wondering about the connection. Especially given the science is so clear.

That’s why Tony Abbott’s government doesn’t want us to talk about it. Everyone knows the new government is resisting action on climate change. But politicians here can’t say that. Unlike America, where climate denial is a badge of pride for conservatives, in Australia they have to take a subtler line. The Australian public accepts climate science and believes the world should act. So our conservative politicians have to say they accept the climate science (even when they don’t) then argue that Australia should act slowly and cautiously and not before the world does – in other words say the right things but don’t take much action. Well, except to dig up and sell as much coal as we can before the world wakes up to our game.

That’s why linking climate and fires is scary territory for conservative politicians. It’s hard to overstate how iconic and powerful bushfires are in the Australian psyche. They bring out the best in us. Courageous, mostly volunteer fire-fighters risk their lives to protect others and are correctly seen as heroes. The tragedy of fires brings communities together and we open our hearts and wallets to those affected in these all too regular fire events that symbolise summer. So connecting politics to this iconic Australian symbol is both dangerous and alluring. Observe for example the conservative shock–jock Neil Mitchel who, while attacking those who link fires and climate change this week tried to side with the heroes, saying “This is one of those times we pull together and when the Australian spirit famously shines through….. I remember the spirit that builds around times like this. It is magnificently Australian.”

So let’s be clear, the resistance from conservative politicians and commentators to linking climate change and fires is not just driven by compassion for those suffering loss. It is the manipulative politics they’re accusing others of. As the old quote goes “Hell hath no fury like a vested interest disguised as a moral principle.” If the public learns to relate natural disasters that go to the heart of the Australian psyche, like fire, drought and flood, to climate change – those who resist strong climate policy will be in serious trouble. So will their policies promoting the massive expansion of coal mining.

But perhaps the most important reason for talking about climate change and bushfires is so we end our denial of what’s to come.  Mega fires in spring, as we’re facing this week, are indicative of the future we face and we have some important choices to make. Firstly, we must decide to get ready for a lot more angry summers – these are now inevitable. They’re going to be tragic, expensive and disruptive and the sooner we get our heads around that the better of we’ll be. Given what’s coming we should all be running raffles and fundraising BBQ’s for our volunteer fire fighters. We’re going to need them to be well resourced, appreciated and numerous. And we’re going to have to think differently and creatively about how we reduce the risk, as well argued by Professor Peter Bowman from the University of Tasmania. Secondly we have to decide what side of history we want to be on in Australia. Are we going to be the country that that sold the coal that helped drive the climate into chaos or the ones who woke up in time and changed our ways. That’s the conversation we need to have and the middle of bushfire emergency is the ideal time to have it. So let’s talk.

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14 Comments
  1. Keith 6 years ago

    Paul,
    The future is already here.

    I am not sure why the obvious isn’t being stated clearly here.
    Sure, we have a history of dreadful bushfires that in the past were rare events. In the past decade, we’ve had unprecedented fires in the ACT, Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania and now NSW. In each of these cases the fires have been in a new class, where firestorms have destroyed houses (with fatalities) that in the past would have been expected to be safe.

    And don’t forget the new paradigm in floods along the east coast of Australia.

    All of the above is quite consistent with what the experts are saying about the influence of climate change.

    I agree that the time has long past when these events can be brushed aside as “natural” disasters that have always happened in this country. There is nothing natural or normal about what is going on and by continuing to exploit fossil fuels we are responsible.

    If addressing the very fabric of society isn’t enough to get political attention, perhaps the cost of these disasters will soon force action. Ask a resident of Cairns about the cost of house insurance to get a view of what climate change is doing to cost of living. The attempt by the coalition to frame carbon pricing in terms of electricity prices is disgraceful and needs to be loudly denounced.

    • suthnsun 6 years ago

      Yes to paragraphs 1 to 5.
      I am not optimistic about 6.
      Who are we to talk to at this point?
      Those who understand have been saying it ad nauseum.
      Those who defend business as usual never grasp the arguments, perhaps they do at some level but defensiveness takes over.
      The well-off middle class in Australia who have a defensive mindset are very reactive.
      The politicians are singularly useless at framing and arguing for policies which will gain sufficient traction, current govt. not remotely interested. I suspect the insurance premiums will be adapted to, scapegoating , demonising and diverting from the real issues will be the stock in trade. This is happening before we are under significant duress, when that arises those processes will be even more vigorous. We could be totally impoverished before mass sanity reasserts itself and that looks unlikely too. A downward spiral beckons when a dark mood engulfs.
      On the other hand, none of it is necessary, the ambit of current technologies are sufficient to avert the worst of that spiral provided the mass mindset changes and acts accordingly.

      • Keith 6 years ago

        Suthnsun,

        I guess every time Greg Hunt pontificates about how dreadful the carbon tax is for electricity prices, someone needs to say loudly that this is about climate change. Rising electricity prices (which are caused by goldplating the grid) are just scaremongering those who aren’t paying attention.

        With house insurance of $2000+ for modest homes in Cairns, people will get the message quickly if this is pointed out. What will happen to bushfire insurance costs in the Blue Mountains? Victoria, ACT are anticipating(??) a tough bushfire season …..

        In Parliament, I’m not confident that Labor will cope, so we are probably back to the Greens. Maybe Labor will realise that they are on to a winner here and they will stay the distance and start to talk about reality, rather than accepting Tony Abbott’s scaremongering and obfuscation about electricity prices.

        One thing is certain … people are paying attention to climate issues at the moment, so it is not a time to go into hiding.

        • suthnsun 6 years ago

          Yes, you are right, thanks for that. I’ ll try to keep my chin up, learn to communicate more widely and resist my proclivity to go into hiding.

  2. M.G.Adams 6 years ago

    Sadly, as far as Climate Change is concerned, we have just elected a bunch of Libeeral lemons

  3. denese sluyters 6 years ago

    put it this way, if your sick you find out why you are sick, treatment is decided and you recover, one does not wait till one is on life support and may die The earth is dying we need to talk about it now, if I was their position re my home ext, I would NOT feel uncomfortable in fact I be screaming out and saying do something, just the same as I would of a loved one was ill, the ones that don’t want to hear are the ones that don’t believe the science, no excuse.

  4. Kevin O'Dea 6 years ago

    Best of luck to the people of the Blue Mountains for Wednesday, it does sound like an absolutely dreadful situation to be caught up in. This extraordinary fire emergency is occuring in October (Spring!!) after a dry and mild winter in that part of the World. We must remember the recent enormous fire in the Yosemite area in the USA, and the other fire situations around the World, and ask the question why all these situations are exploding in our face. Denialists will continue to argue their case until kingdom comes, but these situations are in line with what the science has been predicting. I do think the insurance companies will have to get serious with the Coalition government and make the case in the language that government would understand.

  5. thin_king 6 years ago

    A very well written article Paul, great work! (I realise that made me sound like a school teacher writing a comment on your essay but no, I’m just someone who appreciates effective communication around, well, one of the burning issues of our time) And yes, as others have commented our hearts and wishes for safety go out to all those threatened by the fires and those bravely taking risks to help protect life, property and bushland.

  6. Concerned 6 years ago

    Wish people would stick to facts.There has been above
    average rain fall for the last three years,and fuel has built up,as it has done
    on regular occasions.It then burns,as it has done, forever.Population and settlement also grows year on year.

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/3leci9gqmo92ru7/Bushfires102013.docx

    • CoreyAnder 6 years ago

      Dear Concerned,

      Concerning “the facts” – your references and data are not at all useful for drawing conclusions about bush fires and climate change. I think that readers should be concerned about what you are really concerned about.

      • Concerned 6 years ago

        Sorry you find referenced facts confronting,says something does it not?

    • BilB 6 years ago

      Concerned, If you were really “concerned” you would not be so complacent as to suggest that what happened in Winmalee was “normal”.

      There was nothing at all normal about this fire, and fuel load was irrelevant to the outcome of the fire. This fire was of the type that burnt 500 houses in Canberra fueled by grass in a broad field. When wind speeds are extreme as they were in both Canberra and Winmalee the fire burns low and parrallel to the ground. In this situation even a very small fuel load amounts to a very large fuel load of a slower burning fire as it effectively becomes a “vertical” fuel, equivalent to a fire stack several hundred metres high, and all of which becomes active at the same time.

      As Paul Gilding points out it was not just the intensity of the fire that was concerning, but the time of year in which it happened and the climate phase of neutral SOI.

  7. Chris Harries 6 years ago

    The ‘new normal’ is rapidly becoming normal. Extreme weather events are what we see on the news all the time now, so they no longer stand out as abnormal. This is especially true for younger people who don’t have a long memory of what used to be normal. We can show with statistics how abnormal and disturbing these events are, but that’s just too academic for many. I don’t think Abbott has a head for numbers.

    If all that sounds too negative, every climate disaster we witness brings a few more across the line. It’s a race against time, but time is not on our side. For anyone who has half a brain serious climate change has already happened, and we are only witnessing the pointy end. Even the new normal will be replaced with a newer normal within the coming decade. We aren’t frogs that are being slowly boiled, the heat is rising rapidly enough for us to jump out of the pot!

  8. Alen 6 years ago

    Just remembered this article, a quick look at the present state of Australian weather, intense heat waves in the east and west of the country and high rainfalls in the NT. Isn’tthe definition of climate change the more frequent occurrence of weather extremes? You can deny it all you want, but simple words will not stop events such as these from coming back year after year. If its not serious floods like those in 2 consequant years in Qld, its a heatwave that grips most of the country

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