As with so many contemporary discussions, what is missing from the debate about the impact of climate change on drought and fire in Australia is a historical perspective. Along with a willingness by some to understand the principle of causality.
On December 6, commentator Jane Caro forwarded a tweet to Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon, the member for Hunter and federal opposition agriculture and resources spokesman, about the fires and drought in the region. She was visiting NSW’s Hunter Valley and said she could not believe Fitzgibbon was “still spruiking coal”.
Fitzgibbon’s tweeted response evoked the objective truth derived from causality. He said he had voted for every carbon reduction bill ever introduced into the parliament, but added: “if Labor’s scheme had been in place for the last 6 years we’d be experiencing the same bushfires”.
That’s correct. Australia emits around 1.3 per cent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions. In view of this, there is nothing Australia could have done by itself to prevent the bushfires raging in parts of Australia — even if it is agreed that they and other bushfires are a direct result of climate change.
In response, Caro conceded the point. However, she added that if Australia’s carbon emissions had been reduced at a greater rate in recent years then “at least we’d feel like we are doing something”. In short, it’s all about feelings.
Caro went on to state that coalmining “has to go” if her “grandchildren are to have a liveable future”. This suggests that, in her view, the end of the world will be nigh by 2120 unless coal becomes a thing of the past. But as Fitzgibbon has pointed out, “big emitting nations can’t transition” without mining resources. That’s what solar panels and wind turbines are made from. Interviewed on ABC Radio National Breakfast on Tuesday, Liberal National Party senator and energy minister Matt Canavan said what Australia could do to control bushfires turned on reducing the fuel load, which contributes to the intensity of fires and focus on mitigation. Correct. Anyone with an understanding of Australia before and after European settlement understands that bushfires can’t be prevented.
In view of this, bushfires cannot be caused by Australians — apart from those who deliberately or unintentionally light fires. Even so, ABC TV Q&A executive producer Peter McEvoy and presenter Tony Jones allowed a question to air on Monday that accused Scott Morrison’s government of being responsible for the current fires.
Speaking via video link from the edge of the Currowan fire ground, the questioner commented: “How can Morrison and a largely silent Sussan Ley not be treated as deniers, guilty of collaborating and co-creating this fire disaster we find ourselves in?”
Jones said nothing in response to the allegation that the Prime Minister and his Environment Minister were “co-creating” the bushfires. It was not an unfamiliar Q&A panel of the kind where everyone agreed with everyone else. Certainly not one of the panel of five supported the Coalition government on its climate change policy. However, Australian National University and Nobel prizewinner Brian Schmidt did say “it’s hard to put a single fire to climate”.
Schmidt’s point makes sense. Once it is said that a particular fire was caused by climate change, then what about the others? Within living memory there were massive bushfires in 1939 (Victoria, South Australia and NSW), 1967 (Tasmania), 1968 (NSW), 1974-75 (NSW), 1983 (Victoria, South Victoria), 2003 (ACT) and 2009 (Victoria). And now there are the 2019 fires.
It’s much the same with droughts. What is called the Federation drought ran from 1895 to 1903. This was accompanied by periods of intense heat and bushfires. Historian Don Garden, who has examined the newspapers of the period, records: “Much of Gippsland (eastern Victoria) was devastated, with the smoke so thick that daylight turned to dark, and offshore coastal shipping was forced to slow; smoke from the Victorian fires even created a haze over Sydney.” The period before and during World War II was a time of drought and fire in large parts of Australia. Jill Ker Conway commented on this experience in Western NSW in her book The Road from Coorain (1989). In his 1945 book The Earth Our Mother, BA Santamaria wrote about “the disastrous dust storms which swept Melbourne and Sydney at the end of 1944” which “deposited on urban roof tops their indisputable evidence of the impending ruin of Australia’s good earth”.
The evidence of history suggests that Australia recovers from drought and fire and flood. However, there is a tendency among humans to project today’s misfortune into the future.
The ABC and Nine Entertainment newspapers have been fixated on the smoke that has shrouded Sydney in recent times, blown over the city from the bushfires. Certainly this is of danger to those who suffer from asthma and angina, among other illnesses. But it will not be a permanent feature of Sydney life.
You would not know this if you relied on the assessment of Sydney writer Mark Mordue in Wednesday’s Sydney Morning Herald. In his article, Mordue declared that “our dead future is here” and wondered how long it would be before the birds started dropping from the sky.
The mildly asthmatic writer came to the opinion that, due to the smoke, he felt “being buried alive” and “slowly smothered”.
Mordue struggled “to think straight in this atmosphere”. But he managed to get his piece to the desk of the SMH’s opinion page editor.
ABC presenters, including Hamish Macdonald and Michael Rowland, are continually asking Coalition ministers to acknowledge that there is a direct link between climate change and the current bushfires. On ABC News Breakfast on Wednesday, Rowland declared that he was giving Communications Minister Paul Fletcher “one more opportunity” to answer in the affirmative.
The truth is that there would be bushfires in Australia even if the whole country closed down and global emissions were drastically reduced. The likes of the city-dwelling Caro might feel better if Australia’s carbon emissions were drastically reduced. But those who suffer from the fires would feel much the same.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au.