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Changing climates

The political anatomy of a fire


In 2009, just after Black Saturday, when some of Canada’s most experienced firefighters were out in Australia to fight bushfires, they were amazed. They told journalists that while the spruce and fir forests back in Canada were thicker and taller than eucalypts, they just could not believe how hot a eucalyptus forest fire could be.

They were hotter than anything they had ever seen - like petrol on trees.

In Australia, bushfires get so hot they can cause their own weather, known as pyro-convection. It happened in Canberra in 2003, Black Saturday in 2009 and has been forecast as a possibility for Wednesday in the Blue Mountains.

You see, once these bushfires get so large as to produce their own weather, the importance of the background extreme weather that might have enabled them to start can become anathema, as they reproduce their own conditions of combustion. Once this happens, there is little that humans, or even nature, can do to stop them.

In a way, it is this distinctiveness of Australian bushfires that provides a metaphor for runaway climate change, and the frailty of humans in the face of the heat accumulated by the carbon-emitting traditions of past generations.

But as observed elsewhere, the NSW fires are related to climate change in more direct ways. Climate change has loaded the dice toward fires being more severe, prone to occurring in months we have not witnessed in the past, and are - potentially - more deadly.

The current NSW bushfire season, which many have forgotten started on September 10, stands out on a global scale and has attracted media attention around the world.

Many forget too that Australia is a nation regarded as one of the most vulnerable to climate change. You don’t even need to ask the IPCC about this, ask the climate change analysts at investment bank HSBC. Their report in September placed Australia at the top of the G20 nations for temperature increase, second worst in the decline of available water and second behind China in cost per GDP and in the humanitarian cost of extreme weather events.

But by far the biggest hit to the new Coalition government’s policy on climate change came from the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres. Figueres has held up the NSW bushfires as being “absolutely” linked to climate change, and that Australia will pay a heavy economic price (and the Abbott government a heavy political price) if it does not take effective action on climate.

Will the Abbott government pay a high political price for these fires?

Last week, Abbott government ministers, MPs and Twitter trolls were at pains to extinguish any link people might draw between climate change and the fires. Some were attacking Greens MP Adam Bandt as the first to link the Coalition’s perceived inaction on climate change to the fires as if Bandt was an isolated radical.

But, in fact, one need look no further than the Bureau of Meteorology to see warnings that climate change was going to mean worsening fire conditions in southeast Australia. Bandt went further in suggesting just that.

But now the fires became more serious, Coalition politicians - whose media appearances are now controlled by the PM’s office - have suddenly disappeared and Tony Abbott was not doing any interviews at all. This was narrativised as “Tony Abbott has taken a break from running the country”. Fortunately for Abbott, he was able to don firefighting uniforms and take part in backburning operations which have kept him away from journalists.

Some were very cynical about Abbott’s actions at the front line - that it was all some kind of heroic media stunt. But, actually, Abbott was there for entirely different reasons. On the one hand, of course he cares about the communities under threat by this conflagration; he has been a volunteer firefighter for 13 years, and this is his way of showing it whilst the fires are on. But on the other hand, he has to be there because he actually has nowhere to go, personally or policy-wise.

Environment minister Greg Hunt has also been unavailable for interview, except to put out a statement yesterday reiterating his faux indignation from last week that:

No-one, no-one should be politicising these bushfires.

The flagrant contradiction of the Abbott government’s Direct Action plan

Something that seems to have been lost in the immediate debate about the link between the fires and global warming is the effectiveness of Direct Action toward combating climate change.

So let’s get straight to the heart of it. In the past week, prime minister Tony Abbott has been backburning bush outback in New South Wales, while at the same time nursing a policy to plant more trees. And with the unproven techniques of soil sequestration looking very shaky, and the abandonment of any kind of carbon reduction policy, planting trees is the Coalition’s current solution. But according to the analysts, if planting trees is the best the government can throw at climate change, we really do have a problem.

What this incongruity shows is that Direct Action has really just been brought about for election purposes. It is a stop-gap to cater to the 65% of Australians who believe climate change is an important problem.

But, actually, there is no plan. As the leader of the Greens, Senator Christine Milne said today on the ABC’s World Today program:

They went to the election without a plan, that’s why they are now going to green paper, white paper, possible regulation, possible introduction supposedly on the 1st July next year. The reality is, what they are proposing is not going to bring down emissions.’

Also today, Greg Hunt was proposing that Direct Action can simply be brought in by regulation rather than legislation which will avoid any scrutiny by parliament. But if it can be brought in simply by regulation it shows how insubstantial it actually is. Keep climate policy off the table and away from the media is the best the Coalition can do for now.

We are certainly in an entirely different political climate from the one in which News Corp newspapers were editorialising to make carbon the new political bogey issue that would bring down any party which dared go near it. The question remains as to how sheltered the Abbott government is from the shift that just one or two extreme weather events can bring, given that Abbott has surrounded himself with climate science-denying advisors.

It is lamentable that it might take extreme weather events - rather than our fourth estate - to make the government accountable on climate change. It may not be the NSW fires themselves, and we may have a couple more extreme weather events to go before the government is mobilised toward a serious climate change policy, but the politics-climate equinox will not be far behind the media-climate equinox - and the election cycle is ticking.

And in the meantime, Tony Abbott won’t be able to discard his firefighting gear anytime soon. After all, we still have summer to get through.

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