Bushfires and bulldust

Linking bushfire and climate change is an exercise in mathematics – probability and severity. Talking about climate change during a bushfire is a little more complicated.

A few days ago I got a call from an international journalist, he wanted to speak to me about the NSW bushfires and the link with climate change. 

My first response was to tell him to speak to some academics that study bushfire risk and management and how it would be affected by warming planet. I told him that while you can’t pinpoint a single climatic event and say it was directly caused by climate change (after all, arsonists happen to have a role to play), it’s really an issue about probability and severity. We’ve always had major bushfires in Australia, but climate change will mean that conditions conducive to dangerous bushfires (high temperatures and dry bushland) are more likely. So, I told him, this is actually a mathematical exercise and there are scientists who’ve done the analysis who can help you out.

“Actually,” he said, “I’d like to understand what you think it might mean politically, rather than the science. Could an incredibly severe bushfire in October, not summer, ignite public concern for climate change and make repeal of the carbon price less likely?”

My immediate response was an emphatic 'no'.

But then I started to talk the issue out, to consider whether such an unusually severe bushfire in October might cause people to pause and think something was alarmingly amiss which couldn’t be easily reconciled with their past experience. At this point they might become more concerned about global warming. 

The problem, of course, is that Australia has always encountered incredibly intense and damaging bushfires. One of the most vivid memories from my very early childhood was seeing my mother sobbing as she watched the news. I was incredibly concerned by my mother’s state but couldn’t understand why she was crying.

It was because she was watching our holiday house and all the memories it contained go up in smoke in the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires.

In an observation that many Australians would relate to, Prime Minister Tony Abbott observed, “these fires are certainly not a function of climate change – they're just a function of life in Australia". 

Australia’s climate is a harsh one, subject to incredible extremes. Given this it’s hard for the average person to distinguish a clear trend in a climate that can rapidly veer from severe drought to severe flood.

Yet there is a very solid body of evidence to confidently conclude that human emissions of greenhouse gases will warm the planet at a scale and speed that has severe consequences for human well-being and safety. In addition, analysis by the CSIRO and the Australian Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre suggests global warming will noticeably increase the probability and severity of serious bushfires in south-east Australia.

But the general public for the most part aren’t studiously reading such reports, instead they rely more on their direct experience. This may mean we’re much like the frog that fails to leap out of the cooking pot because the temperature of the water is raised slowly and imperceptibly. 

The Greens MP Adam Bandt is keen to ensure that the effects of climate change are not imperceptible to the general public. So, right in the middle of the NSW bushfires, he decided to take a swipe at Tony Abbott’s decisions to unwind a range of emission reduction policies, saying this would contribute to making such bushfires a more common occurrence.

Such an action carries real risks of backfiring. Those suffering from the loss of their homes, and the many more who empathise with them, may not take kindly to linking such a tragic loss to a political debate. Also, while bushfire risk is likely to increase steadily over time, we may end up very lucky for the rest of this bushfire season and next. This may lead people to believe Bandt to be crying wolf.

But at the same time do you stay silent right at the point at which you think you have the greatest chance of people paying attention?

He was roundly criticised by the Coalition for trying to use an event of human suffering to political gain. But the Coalition have hardly been reluctant to convert human suffering into political advantage. For the past five years federal coalition ministers, while in opposition, have been leaping for joy at the news of mass worker sackings, which they sought to blame on the carbon price no matter how tenuous the link (and even when companies had made it clear the carbon price had little to do with sackings). This reached farcical proportions when Senator Brandis tried to link the mass sacking of Fairfax employees to the carbon price, and when Tony Abbott was torn to shreds on the 7.30 Report for claiming the Olympic Dam expansion was cancelled because of the carbon and mining taxes.

One bushfire won’t make the difference in people’s concern about climate change, but the link between the two is certainly worthy of discussion when people are most attuned to the importance of the issues.

*Fire and climate: don't expect a smooth ride, October 22.

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