The Climate Lesson From Our Burning Summer


Today marks the close of another Angry Summer for our sunburnt country. For the last three months south-eastern Australia has been battered by record-hot days, a slew of brutal heat-waves, and galling dry-spells — and all of this during cooling phase of the El Niño cycle.

We're also at the end of what's been a truly fearsome bushfire season.

It began early — shockingly early — in September, with 500 firefighters battling blazes in Western Sydney. By October, New South Wales was in a state-of-emergency. Hundreds of fires scorched the state and over 200 homes were lost.

In January fires ran out of control through the Grampians in Victoria, the Flinders Ranges in SA and the Hunter Valley in NSW. Just three weeks ago bushfire swept through the Adelaide Hills and took dozens of homes in Melbourne's outer northern suburbs. Fires are still burning at Hazelwood power station, covering the Latrobe Valley in dangerous smoke. It's been wave after wave after wave of fire and we could well be in for more before autumn truly kicks in.

It's plain to see that bushfires are becoming more and more frequent. Over the past few years there have been a dozen panels, inquiries, reviews and commissions put together to tell us how we can stop this happening again. They've come back to us with reports overflowing with recommendations on how to minimise the fire threat, from repairing the power grid to centralising emergency services to new insurance levies and public information schemes.

It's all important stuff, but each time we somehow manage to miss one of the biggest contributor to the fire risk in our corner of the country: fossil fuels.

Dodgy power lines and poorly planned suburbs undoubtedly play their part, but climate change is and will continue to be a key factor behind the severity of our bushfire seasons. Hot, dry conditions crank up the risk of fire like nothing else and the Climate Council's 2013 report on bushfires tells us south-east Australia has become much hotter and much drier over the last 30 years.

We're getting record-hot summers, more heat-waves, and more severe droughts. Each summer it turns Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales into so much kindling and means all that stands between us and catastrophe is a spark.

We've seen this play out. The Black Saturday fires were preceded by a decade-long drought, a string of record-hot years and a sweltering heatwave. The state-of-emergency in New South Wales came after the hottest September on record, days of extreme heat and unusually dry conditions. True, Australia has been hot and dry a long, long time. Fire is, as the Prime Minister suggests, a part of the Australian experience. But now that the climate is much hotter and much drier, conditions are worse than at any point in our history. If we continue burning fossil fuels and warming the climate, it’s only going to get worse.

We tend to frame climate change as a gradual process with vague and indirect impacts that will be spread across the globe and wont be felt for decades. And that's partly true. But the reality is that we're experiencing the impacts right here and right now. People in Australia, in Melbourne’s outer suburbs and Sydney’s west, in the Hunter Valley and the Flinders Ranges, places you’ve visited, places you’ve lived in or live in now – these people's lives are at risk and the danger grows every hour we continue burning and exporting fossil fuels.

Nothing will reduce the future fire risk more than quitting coal and gas. The Climate Council's final chapter of its bushfires report is clear as day on this: we need deep cuts in emissions, we need to keep the bulk of our fossil fuel deposits in the ground, and we need to act on this now. Not over the next few decades, but the next few years. According to the Climate Council, "this is the critical decade".

Quitting fossil fuels is not some vague environmental gesture, an act of charity for Mother Earth. It will save lives, the lives of our friends and the lives of our families. With that in mind, the cheap fuel we're digging up doesn't seem so cheap. In fact, it couldn't be more costly.

Tony Abbott was right when he quipped that carbon emissions are an invisible, odourless, weightless, tasteless substance. But unlike the the gases that drive it, climate change is as palpable as it gets; potent as the smell of smoke, visceral as the heat radiating from the fire front, and at times as powerful as a thousand atomic bombs.

Climate change is about people. It's about communities, it's about keeping our friends and family safe. We should be affording it the same urgency and dedication we show bushfires. After all, climate change is a hundred bushfires burning just around the corner.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.