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Feb 9, 2009

Bushfires: Don’t mention the c word

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? Asks Clive Hamilton.

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.

Clive Hamilton is the author of Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change (Black Inc.)

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.

Clive Hamilton is the author of Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change (Black Inc.)

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63 thoughts on “Bushfires: Don’t mention the c word

  1. Daniel

    JamesK is Crikey’s resident expert on predictability 🙂

  2. Cathy

    If you ask the aged (80 years and over) was the weather ever as bad as this they’ll tell you OH, YES!!! “Mum used to hang wet sheets across the doors and we all had to stay inside for days” – they lived at Huntleys Point in Sydney. “We were always sent home from school or work when the temperature hit 100 degrees and many times we had to get off the tram when the rails buckled in the heat”. So maybe climate change is about weather patterns alternating over 60 or more years along with the impact of industry and habitation. Another point well made was “our houses weren’t made of flimsy materials – we had double-brick walls and tiled roofs and the house was the coolest place to be”. How many homes are like that these days?

  3. Venise Alstergren

    David Sanderson: re JK, I did wonder.

    Now I’ve calmed down a bit I have a question which no-one will bother to give me. I’m too much of an odd-ball! Why oh why does none among you arrive at the obvious conclusion that less people =less climate change? Here we have Oz, the major part of which is rightly referred to as the driest continent on earth. Here are our politicians who pay money to women for breeding. These same ppoliticians invite hundreds upon thousands of people to come and live here. Climate Change is caused by the activities of the descendant of apes, called man. Man has bred like rabbits, and continents like Africa and Asia, large parts of Latin America are unable to sustain this population explosion.
    But it’s OK to blame Climate Change. Not OK to suggest that man should modify its breeding! Such is the idealogical mind-set of the ape species called man.

  4. Johnny B

    Harold – 9 February 2009 4:25:54 PM

    “….but let’s not fool ourselves that India or China will be inflenced….”

    You raise a valid point and you may be interested that President Obama has already approached China on a joint approach to tackling climate change and so far the response has been positive:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/united-on-climate-change-obamas-chinese-revolution-1604027.html

    I believe we need to move much faster on CC than anyone realises – as fast as we would were the country being invaded by foreign forces. Think about it.

  5. Bernard Keane

    If you want schadenfreude Brendan look no further than Wilson Tuckey, who has used the fires to attack political parties pursuing Green preferences – just as he did after the Canberra bushfires, which had nothing to do with forest management and everything to do with rank incompetence.

    Contemptible, even by Tuckey’s bottom-of-the-barrel standards. He also insisted on passing notes around during Gillard’s condolence motion in Parliament.

  6. Andrew

    As always, those who are still fighting the arguments of the 1990s will point to an event and say that, because it was not completely unprecedented in human history, it can’t be climate change. Clearly we have had bad fires before. But I can’t see how an unprecedented drought and record breaking heatwaves can be ignored as contributing factors to the severity of these fires. A change in severity, or in frequency of events is change in the climate and having one of these fires every few years is a lot different than once every few decades.

  7. Johnny B

    CSIRO’s 2007 report into climate change on Australia indicated that under a low emissions scenario warming of 1ºC to 2.5ºC is likely by around 2070; under a high emissions scenario the estimates are between 2.2ºC and 5ºC.

    The report also makes clear that in any event there will be “substantially more days over 35ºC…,droughts are likely to become more frequent…, evaporation rates are likely to increase…, high fire-danger weather is likely to increase in the southeast….., tropical cyclones are likely to become more intense and sea levels will continue to rise”.

    Despite these warnings Australian politicians are committed to policies that will further increase greenhouse gas generating coal-fired power stations with continued approval of new coal mines and extensive expansion of rail and shipping facilities.

    This whole process has a horrible similarity with the asbestos and tobacco sagas, which continued for many decades after knowledge of their deadly impacts was available.

    At the very least we should have some projections of the numbers of Australians who can be expected to die as a result of bushfires between now and 2070 in the low and high emissions scenarios so we can include those in a sensible power generation strategy. Or maybe the deaths of people in bushfires are just “colateral damage” inevitable when supporting the coal mining industry.

  8. scott

    To answer Clive Hamilton’s first question, will we face up to [the future] or pretend [bush-fires] are one-off events, I suggest the answer is the latter. I am only thirty-five and this is the second time in my lifetime that Victoria has been devastated in this way. Yet the sandwich-board outside my news agency advertised the Australian with the banner “Worst fires in generations”. I feel a cynical helplessness watching the television news. Streets of houses overshadowed by the trees that incinerated them. Villages pressed up against forest with no visible open space to act a fire-breaks. These villages must have been very beautiful when the rains were good and the weather cool. But to live this close to nature, these small communities ought to have natural disaster plans and practice them regularly. School children practice their fire-drill every term. When the gale is blowing, the temperature is above 40C and the sky is dark with smoke and embers, it is too late to decide in which direction one may safely retreat.

    How is it these communities do not have the collective memory to learn from the past?

  9. Mark Duffett

    Just beat me to it, Clive, but gee I wish you’d presented Barry Brook’s very lucid (and, heavens be praised, numerate) bravenewclimate piece up front in your original article. You really led with the chin there. Take the hint, anyone who’s interested in serious climate change discussion rather than cheap point scoring – head over to what is, for mine, the world’s premier climate blog.

  10. Venise Alstergren

    As someone who saw her partner’s property at Gembrook, around the corner from the place the truck load of firefighters were incinerated at Emerald: and as a conservationist-an active one. I am appalled at the facile argument amongst the dimmer mentalities which crowd these pages; that Climate Change equals bushfires. I am more than appalled. I am outraged. I wish all of the armchair theorists could have the unmitigated joy of seeing whole forests, farms, native and domestic, and human lives, VAPORIZED.
    Every lunatic, chair-bound hypothesist should be subjected to the brutality of frying meat on dying animals. Native animals-surely some of the people here are hypothetical conservationists-are barbequed with equal facility. Trees don’t just become black. They cease to have any form at all. Vaporized is the only word I can think of. Nothing, bloody nothing, escapes the quixotic path of a raging bushfire.
    To say this one is the worst is being cited solely on the numbers of people who have died, or the poor bastards doomed for hideous burn pain in our hospitals is codswallop. Our population since the 1929 fires has exploded. Of course the deaths will be in higher numbers. The deaths of animals and humans in future fires will be greater than each preceding one. Yet, while the legal and the medical fraternity continue to ‘understand’ the mental anguish (?) of arsonists, so long will we be at their mercy. Climate Change exists but it takes undiluted human numbers to 1) Cause it, 2)to offer up the numbers of potential victims.
    To reduced the who bloody, bloody thing to an exercise of personal politics is obscene. There are times when I am revolted by the things said by the Clive Hamilton’s of this world. Clive, you make Andrew Bolt sound like a human being.

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