Last updated March 10, 2020 at 4:38 pm
Opinion: This is the exact time to be talking about climate change.
Why This Matters: Climate deniers need to get the hell out of the way.
Over the past several days New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia have been devastated by bushfires. The ones in NSW and Queensland in particular are unprecedented in scale and ferocity. Sadly, they have already claimed lives and destroyed countless properties and communities.
“The devastating bushfires in NSW and Queensland are unprecedented in terms of being so early going into the south-eastern Australian bushfire season, and where they are burning. These areas have rarely had intense fires because of their moist soils and vegetation. However, the fire situation is consistent with our new world of bushfire threat associated with climate change,” says Jim McLennan, a bushfire safety researcher at La Trobe University.
It’s not even the only “unprecedented” weather event that has occurred. We’ve had unprecedented coral bleaching, floods, and droughts, and constant broken records for hottest months. The Bureau of Meteorology had to start using a new colour on their temperature graphs because it started going above the standard scale. On Monday 11 November, for the first time that we know of, no rain fell on Australia. None, anywhere. At all.
Yes, there have always been bushfires in Australia. And sure you might pull out some bushfire in February and March 1922. But that’s also the point – that’s after a summer of drying landscape. This bushfire is in November, at the start. We’re seeing more severe droughts closer together and more intense bushfires than what we’ve seen before. The events have always happened – they’re now happening worse than before.
“We are clearly transiting away from the stage of ‘what climate models tell us about the possible effects of climate change on bushfires’ to ‘observing and experiencing extreme, unusual, and ecologically and economically damaging bushfires driven by anomalous climate conditions’,” says David Bowman, an expert in bushfire science at the University of Tasmania.
“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.”
Similarly, Andrew Gissling from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC warns of increases in bushfire weather due to climate change. “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.”
They’re not even the first bushfires this season – I was on ABC Radio in August when my segment was put on hold in order to broadcast bushfire warnings.
And yet we hear “this is not the time” to mention how climate change has contributed to what’s happening. But when is?
When former NSW Fire Chief Greg Mullins and 22 other emergency leaders wrote an urgent letter to the Prime Minister in April to highlight the bushfire risk influenced by climate change, that wasn’t the time. And then in September when they wrote again, that wasn’t the time either.
These are the letters sent by former NSW Fires Chief Greg Mullins and 22 other former emergency chiefs to the Prime Minister in April and September predicting a bushfire crisis and requesting a meeting. #nswfires #auspol pic.twitter.com/djhHjHknAe
— Zoe Daniel (@zdaniel) November 9, 2019
Climate change is not only making conditions hotter and drier, it's also decreasing the number of days it's possible to do fuel reduction. Listen to the science and the experts, not the furphies. @Barnaby_Joyce @CharisChang2 @MaxKoslowski @dlmcculloch @emritchiejourno #NSWfires pic.twitter.com/W8MtlDWRjO
— Climate Council (@climatecouncil) November 12, 2019
Scientists have been warning of climate change for decades. In fact longer – in 1912 a New Zealand newspaper contained an article which stated “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.”
The article had its roots in an edition of Popular Mechanics in the same year, titled “Remarkable Weather of 1911: The Effect of the Combustion of Coal on the Climate — What Scientists Predict for the Future”
Our knowledge of greenhouse gases goes even further back than that, however – the first description of the warming effect of atmospheric gases was made by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896.
In 1981 ExxonMobil’s own scientists warned of climate change from fossil fuel burning. In-house messages showed the company was aware of the link between fossil fuels, carbon emissions and climate change. However, the company instead spent millions of dollars funding climate denial campaigns.
It wasn’t until 1988 that scientists themselves stepped into the spotlight to publicise climate change risks, when James Hansen told US Congress that global warming was caused by the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due to the burning of fossil fuels.
A denier’s favourite refrain “but in the 1970’s they warned of an ice age” was only ever a fringe argument picked up by a handful of newspapers. It was certainly not an accepted scientific narrative.
The deniers are wrong. The scientific projections HAVE happened. The bushfires we’re seeing now are exactly what was warned about.
The New York Times even had the gall to accuse scientists of failing by underestimating the impacts of climate change. It’s not the scientists who have failed to tell people – it’s the people in charge who have failed to listen. Over and over.
The fact is, now is the time to talk about climate change. Tomorrow is the time to talk about climate change. And yesterday was the time to talk about climate change.
If we’re not talking about climate change and what can be done to a) reduce the effects in the future, and b) mitigate the risks to our communities from the change already occurring, then we’re having the wrong conversations.
Climate change has caused more deaths in Australia than terrorism. The Australian Defence Force has even raised climate change as a risk to national security.
The people who are claiming “this is not the time” are not arguing about having the conversation tomorrow. They want to stop the conversation entirely – they’re not interested in listening or accepting the scientific fact. This isn’t a delaying tactic, it’s a denial tactic.
The people affected are fine with talking about how climate change increased the fire risk – ABC journalist Jeremy Fernandez spent time within the affected communities, and said “not one person from the dozens of locals/evacuees I spoke to said ‘not today’ on the issue of climate change. Not one.”
I’ll add this:… Not one person, from the dozens of locals/ evacuees I spoke to said ‘not today’, on the issue of climate change. Not one. https://t.co/crv9cD2sCP
— Jeremy Fernandez (@JezNews) November 10, 2019
This is not a political conversation. Climate change doesn’t care for your political leaning – this is purely a conversation about science, and what we need to do as a whole community.
We need to try to learn to minimise the effects when it happens again. And how we change our behaviour as the climate changes is part of that.
One of the factors this year was a shortening of the fire “off season” in which hazard reduction could take place. But even then, the areas burnt had hazard reduction occur last month and last year.
According to Carol Sparks, the mayor of Glenn Innes Severn council devastated by this week’s fires (and a 20 year veteran of the Rural Fire Service): “The anger is real. The anger is justified. Because this disaster was all foreseen and predicted. For decades the link between a hotter, drier climate, land-clearing, excessive irrigation and increased fire risk have all been attested in scientific papers.”
The Government’s own Productivity Commission has warned that bushfire prevention is overlooked and under-resourced. It also said governments “overinvest in post-disaster reconstruction and underinvest in mitigation that would limit the impact of natural disasters in the first place”.
And then our Prime Minister, as much of a climate change denying PM as we’ve ever seen, dares to send “thoughts and prayers” to the communities affected.
It’s what we hear and mock after every US mass shooting. But like how their saying “thoughts and prayers” reflects how little actual action they take to address the problem, Australian politicians are heading the same way.
Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have been so directly and horribly impacted by these fires. https://t.co/XvgsLv4eht
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) November 9, 2019
“Society’s leaders have a responsibility to lead. They are paid to make decisions every day. Every decision not to act in the face of a clear climate change emergency condemns their fellow citizens to increased danger through the impacts of climate change. More people are dying every day due to climate change. The many catastrophic fires locally and around the globe are an important example,” says Grant Wardell-Johnson from Curtin University.
“Politicians with the most blood on their hands are those that deny or downplay the links between these disasters and climate change, that minimise the impact of genuine constructive approaches, or that delay discussion of climate-caused disasters to another time.
“Climate change is more serious than any war we have faced, and the impacts are greater.”
Australia’s national emissions are rising year-on-year. In particular, emissions from fossil fuels and industry are now 7% above 2005 levels. One of the main factors that has even limited it to that level is Australia’s world-leading uptake of rooftop solar – the public is taking charge where the government won’t.
We need to take action on climate change. We need to cut emissions. We need to rethink our lifestyles and our communities to mitigate the risks that we’ve already locked ourselves in for.
There is no Planet B.
Stand for science, and don’t back down. We’re tired of the lies, the circular arguments, and the cherry picking. We are living the fact, right now.
Stand behind Greta Thunberg as a voice of the people, the youth, and action. Stand behind the Climate Strikers and Extinction Rebellion – the students, doctors, scientists, engineers, lawyers and everyday people who stand up and say “no more.” Stand behind the scientists who have been shouted down by a concerted campaign that has locked us into the road we’re travelling.
And while we’re going to get on and do what we can to help humanity’s future, the deniers need to get the hell out of the way. Because if we listen to them, let them dictate the future, we are in for a world of pain.
If we take action right now, what is happening now is what we face in our future. There is change that is unavoidable. But we can still take action to limit how much worse it gets.
And we will. Because we have to.
Thoughts and prayers to the deniers – they’re going to need it.