Climate scientists have been predicting more frequent and severe bushfires due to climate change for some years. A 2007 report for the Climate Institute by the Bushfire CRC concluded that we could expect a two to four-fold increase in the number of extreme fire danger days by 2050 under a high global warming scenario, the path we are now on. It identified northern Victoria, the site of the most deadly fires over the weekend, as one of the areas most prone to catastrophic fires.
The bushfires and the extreme heatwave, whose death toll when tallied will probably be in the hundreds and exceed that of the fires, are global warming made manifest in the daily lives of ordinary people. Over the last ten days we have seen the future. The question is: will we face up to it or pretend they are one-off events?
The climate change debate is usually carried out at a high level of abstraction, which makes it easier for ordinary people and political leaders to treat it as a vague and distant threat. The heatwave and the fires should turn abstraction into reality, just as 9/11 did for the threat of Islamic terrorism.
If we were rational beings the events of the last 10 days would cause a massive reassessment of our whole approach to climate change. Yet it is a safe bet that over the next days and weeks the link between the bushfires and global warming will be avoided and downplayed.
It is almost as if it is bad taste or callousness to raise the spectre of climate change at the time when the terrible forecasts become a reality. But by the time the coronial inquest eventually reports the words of the experts will have lost much of their force.
Certainly, the major political parties will not want to acknowledge the association between global warming and the fires because they will immediately be asked to explain why they are not doing more about it, why Australia will go to Copenhagen with a five per cent target when the scientists say it must be at least 25 per cent.
The Prime Minister has not hesitated to accuse the Opposition of harbouring climate change denialists. But there is more than one form of denialism, including pretending to take warming more seriously than you do and claiming that the science must be “balanced” against the claims of fossil fuel lobbyists.
In all likelihood his media advisers are today urging on him a third form: “Don’t talk about the warming”.
For weeks the political system has been consumed by the global financial crisis and bickering over how best to respond to it. Yet serious as the economic slowdown is, no one has died from it.
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Clive Hamilton is the author of Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change (Black Inc.)