In the days leading up to 7 February 2009, a heatwave hit in Melbourne. Those with the least capacity to insulate themselves from it suffered the most. Victoria recorded 374 deaths, a 62 per cent increase compared with the year before. When Black Saturday itself arrived, Melbourne’s temperature soared, but it wasn’t just the heat that claimed lives. The ferocious and devastating fires took 173 souls and whole communities.
Terror is a much-used word, but it’s surely apt to describe what it must feel like if you’re at risk from an oncoming bushfire. And when you see this picture of a menaced Sydney, you can’t help but notice the fierce sun. It’s a vivid reminder of 2009 in Victoria. At the time of writing, with a declared state of emergency and talk of mega-fires and unprecedented fire-fronts, everyone desperately hopes people in NSW will avoid a similar fate.
We know that these kind of fires will become more frequent, and many fires will become more severe, unless we get global warming under control. Surely, anyone with an ounce of empathy would want to prevent more of these types of catastrophes from hitting our country. We might be a nation prone to bushfires, but why would anyone want us to have more of them?
However, instead of picking the coming fire season to argue for stronger climate action, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his team spent last week arguing ferociously for an urgent repeal of the price on pollution, with no effective alternative scheme ready to put in its place.
He then changed his Facebook photo to show himself in a volunteer firefighter uniform. That’s OK, apparently. But other things are seemingly out of bounds.
In response to my tweet on Tony Abbott’s approach to climate change, there was an outpouring from the Murdoch Praetorian Guard seeking to shield Tony Abbott and his climate policy from any criticism. Creating straw-men and then shooting them down at a rate of knots, critics argued that I said Tony Abbott caused the NSW fires (I didn’t), that Greens oppose hazard reduction burns (we don’t) and that there is no relationship between climate change and increased bushfire risk (there is).
It appears that Tony Abbott and his allies in the tabloid radio and media want to impose a new political correctness on public discussion in Australia. Any discussion of the link between climate change and extreme weather such as bushfires is taboo, but especially identifying any responsibility our leaders might have to address this growing and urgent problem.
They want to be the victors in a new culture war, this time against climate action, with the closing of Tim Flannery’s Climate Commission the first salvo. I don’t recall any reticence from the Coalition (or Labor) when people drowned en route to Australia in 2012. Indeed, as it was happening, politicians were said to have blood on their hands.
In the febrile atmosphere generated in large part by News Ltd and the Coalition, politicians were implored to take immediate action, even if it meant deporting refugees to other countries and/or locking them up indefinitely. Apparently that’s an acceptable response to tragedy as it is unfolding.
According to Environment Minister Greg Hunt, by raising the very real concern about bushfires and climate change I was politicising the fires, but Tony Abbott getting his photo taken in uniform was fine. Perhaps this pinpoints the real reason why supporters of Tony Abbott seem to have a glass jaw when faced with criticism of his climate policy and the reason his cheerleaders jump so quickly to his defence.
Perhaps Tony Abbott’s spruikers like Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine only want to use bushfires as an opportunity to show Abbott as a hero fighting the fires, not as disasters that remind us that Coalition policy on climate change will help create the conditions for more disasters.
Outside of the Murdoch echo chamber, many are choosing to play the ball, not the man. Wendy Harmer wrote:
"Whether or not it's unseemly for Greens politicians to raise the spectre of future cataclysmic climate change when bushfires are still raging out of control, there's no doubt that many of us who looked up to bruised and belligerent skies swirling with ash and a drift of incinerated gum leaves had to wonder, 'is this what the future will be like?'"
Peter FitzSimons also noted the timing:
“When the Prime Minister says the previous government should ''repent'' bringing it in, even as we break yet another month's temperature record, and the bushfires take hold, it is reasonable for Bandt to put an alternative view. He is not disrespecting those who have lost their homes, nor those heroes fighting the fires. He's saying what needs to be said, to try to do something so fewer people lose their homes in the future.”
In the face of global warming, every MP should be doing everything they can to stop more bushfires from happening. Fundamentally, as I have argued elsewhere, Tony Abbott is failing to protect the country’s people, which conservatives claim should be the first duty of any government. Pointing this out obviously cuts too close to the bone.
If Tony Abbott can pick the week of high NSW temperatures to urge the dismantling of climate change action that has already seen pollution fall, he shouldn’t be able to duck the ensuing debate by hiding behind a uniform.
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