THE new year is generally a time of hope and expectation. Not for Australia this year.

As our country burns, the dominant emotions for many of us are grief and anger.

Grief for the people who have lost homes and loved ones.

For the at least half a billion animals that have died and for the loss of habitat that will kill so many more, likely including entire species.

For the frontline firefighters and people in affected communities who will live with the ongoing trauma of things they cannot unsee.

Like many of my fellow Australians, my anger is directed at those who were supposed to lead but have for decades failed us, and at those who continue to peddle spin and misinformation.

Faced with apocalyptic fire conditions, an unruly rabble of politicians, media hacks and others with vested interests have been desperately grasping for explanations that do not relate to our changing climate.

It began with claims that this summer’s cataclysm was nothing unusual, that the young people were just too, well, young to remember disasters past.

With more than 10 million hectares burnt, and counting, I don’t think anybody is still trying that one on.

Newer attempts to distract us from the true nature of the crisis range from exaggerated claims about the role of deliberate acts of arson (debunked here and here) to ludicrous allegations that the Greens somehow prevented hazard reduction burns in the lead-up (for the record, the Greens do not oppose burns).

Firefighters are justifiably outraged by the implication they have been negligent in their attempts at prevention because of some kind of political pressure.

Head of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority Steve Warrington last week said much of the debate around fuel reduction burns was “hysteria” and an “emotional load of rubbish”.

Former NSW Fire Commissioner Greg Mullins said it was climate change, rather than the Greens, that was limiting hazard reduction.

“Extreme drought like this, underpinned by 20 years of reduced rainfall, has meant the window for hazard reduction is very narrow now,” he told the ABC.

It’s not just longer fire seasons we need to be worried about, according to professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania, David Bowman.

Areas of the Snowy Mountains burning now saw incredibly intense fires in the early 2000s, he writes in The Conversation.

“To me, as a fire researcher, that’s an astonishing thought. Yes, there have been very large fires in the past but they weren’t followed up with yet more very large fires a mere 15 years later.”

Normally, you’d expect a gap of 50 or 100 years, he says.

What we are seeing here is climate change in action, the future climate scientists and others have been warning us about for decades.

Twelve years ago, economist Ross Garnaut examined the likely impacts of a warming world on the Australian economy, predicting in his Climate Change Review longer and more intense fire seasons.

“This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020,” he wrote.

Asked by SBS last week about how he felt at seeing that prediction come true, his response was “one of sadness … that I was ineffective in persuading Australians that it was in our national interest to play a positive role in a global effort to mitigate the effects of climate change”.

MJA articles on health and climate change:

These past weeks have brought hope as well as despair.

We’ve been moved by the courage and generosity of people in communities around the country and further afield, and by the inspirational leadership of those in our emergency services.

In contrast, there has been anger about the belated and inadequate response from the federal government and particularly from Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

But #scottyfrommarketing, as he has been dubbed on social media, is a symptom not a cause. The focus on his response risks distracting us from the far bigger issues at play here.

Science tells us it is too late now to stop climate change. We had that opportunity a decade ago and we blew it. This was obvious to anybody not wearing ideological blinkers well before the fires came with their graphic intimation of the future.

Still, we must make this a moment for hope and action, not despair. We have time, perhaps a decade, to reduce the scale of the disaster and to come up with new technologies to help us adapt to a warming world.

If human societies as we know them are to survive, we need genuine measures to combat emissions, not the tricky accounting that is currently shaming us in international forums.

Please don’t tell me it doesn’t matter what Australia does, we’re a small nation, etc, etc …

That morally bankrupt argument could be made on no matter what issue by any self-interested group seeking to avoid its responsibility. You might as well say you won’t pay taxes to support education because you don’t have children or to support hospitals because your own health is excellent.

Fortunately for all of us, most of the planet’s other wealthy nations are not stooping that low.

InSight+ articles on health and climate change:

We humans have exceptional brains, brains that have helped us create complex technological societies, to find ways to live in some of the most extreme environments on our wondrous planet.

Let’s hope those brains can get us out of the corner we have backed ourselves into. We are going to need every neuron, alongside a big serve of empathy for our fellow humans and the other species we share this world with.

This is a time to stand up for evidence and the scientific process, for the painstaking knowledge accumulated by those who have devoted their lives to researching the atmosphere, the oceans, energy, health and, of course, fire.

We need to turn our backs on the ideological spin promoted by vested interests in the fossil fuel industry abetted by some in our media and parliaments.

We need to face the future with courage and honesty, roll up our sleeves, and get into it.

Previous bushfire disasters have earned names: Black Saturday, Red Tuesday, Ash Wednesday …

In these first weeks of the 2020s, we have entered a new era where a single day can no longer sum up the scale of the devastation.

People are already referring to the current catastrophe as Black Summer.

My fear is it will come to be known as the First Black Summer, just as the Great War was renamed the First World War after even greater destruction had been wrought upon the world.

Let’s do what we can to stop that from being our future.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.


The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

9 thoughts on “Black Summer: we can’t allow this to become a trend

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ian Hargreaves, spot on. Excellent suggestions for those truly committed to reducing their carbon footprint.

    While we’re at it, anyone who talks about “reducing carbon” – and I assume they mean carbon dioxide – must in the next breath say something about adopting nuclear power, or else they are not serious or completely ignorant about the reality of modern life and electricity requirements. When some people started getting serious about carbon dioxide emissions some years ago, instead of drinking the solar-panel-and-windmills kool-aid, they should have demanded the resurrection of research that started some 50 years ago in the US that lead to advanced nuclear designs that are: (a) safer, (b) more efficient and for some designs (c) much harder to weaponise. They ran critical a uranium reactor called the Integral Fast Reactor for a decade (based on the EBR II which ran for several decades before it) and a thorium reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for several years. Both were shut down for political, not technical, reasons. Many other countries have constructed similar reactors. It is a travesty that this research was not picked up and continued; if the funds spent on windmill and solar subsidies had been funneled into advanced nuclear energy research we would have commercial versions of these advanced types of reactors.

    This is the only environmentally-friendly way forward to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions while maintaining our world’s population and lifestyle. All of the things I’ve mentioned are easy to find on the Internet for more information, but if you want a more condensed version see the documentary Pandora’s Box (available on Beamafilm; free access with a public library card).

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Jane, from the other side of the world we may not grasp the fire apocalypse quite as you do, Maybe out of the disaster will come something good.

  3. Jon Fergusson says:

    Thanks Jane , our entire biodiversity is at risk and Australia will be the first continent to go in terms of a liveable space.
    ALL Medial professionals have financial firepower , use it now to install PVs, buy batteries for home and business and get and electric vehicle .
    The talking around decarbonisation occurred > 10 years ago and was met with deafness and denial .
    We are now left with no other approach than aggression and conflict with the climate criminals .
    Every LNP member needs to be told to go and get fucked , I ( and we ) will not put up with this acceptance of the death of the natural world . If it is their policy agenda to kill the natural world they had better start telling the truth .
    I have spoken to lots of people who are extremely angry , without rapid change at Federal and State level we are going to end up with some really nasty human interactions .
    Today it is raining solidly on the north coast , reducing fire risk but filling the upper catchments of our river systems with ash , soil and debris – marine poison . More death inflicted on the natural world due to fossil fuels .
    If medical practitioners engaged in this behaviour we would be deregistered and subject to heavy litigation .

  4. Ian Hargreaves says:

    “This is a time to stand up for evidence and the scientific process”. The Chinese government estimates that its one child policy prevented 300 million births. No other measure globally has reduced to zero the carbon footprint of 300 million people and their descendants in perpetuity. Do we care enough to enforce this? The benefits are proven but will be slow to accrue.

    Migrants to Australia greatly increase their carbon footprint. This is unfortunately especially true for refugees, so the question is, do we dare to stand up for the scientific process and join our colleagues in Saudi Arabia and Japan by refusing to accept refugees, and blocking immigration? Fast and effective, 200,000 carbon footprints per annum negated.

    Ziggy Switkowski headed an Australian review which recommended nuclear power: can we stand up for the evidence that reactors kill fewer birds than wind farms, and provide ample baseload power with a lower carbon footprint than anything else? Very slow to implement, but essential long-term planning.

    “[W]e need genuine measures to combat emissions” – An extra $1/litre tax on petrol, $1/kWh tax on coal-fired power, banning heating and cooling in all schools (that will please the striking students) – all these can be implemented immediately, with rapid benefit.

    Then there are the rapidly implementable token gestures, but a clear signal that we are serious.

    Ban fossil fuel use for the Australian Olympic Team – they can get electric vehicles or cycle to competitions domestically, and get a sailing ship (like Greta Thunberg did) or nuclear powered ship to Japan – that will surely satisfy Zali Steggall. Cancel the passports of all those actors who made passionate climate change statements at the Golden Globes – Russell, Cate, Margot, Nicole and Keith can all make movies or albums at home, and their carbon footprints are astronomically high, even by Australian standards.

    Cancel all air travel by politicians, they can catch a train to their electorate or drive a Tesla. Or live permanently in Canberra and work, Skyping their electorate.

    Get the Qantas frequent flyer list and fine the high polluters, perhaps $100,000 for Platinum, $50,000 for Gold, $10,000 for Silver. Alan Joyce would be sure to agree, carbon is carbon, even if it’s coming from a first class seat on a Dreamliner. Banning all human air travel while allowing air freight would be a big but reasonable step, and the tourism industry would recover from the losses as ScoMo holidays in Ulladulla not Oahu.

    The big problem, Jane, is that the “morally bankrupt argument could be made on no matter what issue by any self-interested group seeking to avoid its responsibility”. Everyone is a climate NIMBY, blocking measures that work.

    Hobart is currently on level 1 water restrictions. Water meters have only been installed in recent years, because no dams (remember the No Dams bumper sticker?) have been built in half a century, while the state’s population has doubled. The state which for decades had 100% renewable power now imports dirty brown coal fired power from Victoria, and builds gas turbines. Bob Brown opposes ugly wind farms. The series of four dams (not just the infamous Franklin below Gordon) was not built in the 1970s- “We need to turn our backs on the ideological spin promoted by vested interests in the fossil fuel industry abetted by some in our media and parliaments”. How many dams should we now build?

    Dick Smith is a voice in the wilderness, pointing out that global (and Australian) over-population is the key issue at stake. Population can be controlled the Chinese way (one child policy), the Japanese way (no immigration), the Herodian way (kill the little children), the Logan’s Run way (kill everyone at 30), or the Neronic way – set fire to everything and fiddle while watching it burn. We seem by default to have chosen the latter.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Bert Boffa says “the worse fires on record in Victoria at least were in 1854 when “half the state was on fire.”” However the year of those “worse fires” was 1851 – this was several years before the Cobb and Co stage coaches, the railways and the telegraph networks were started in Victoria, and vast parts of the state had no British settlement at all. I very much doubt the “half the state was on fire” statement is based on accurate measurement. There was also no effective firefighting technology so fires spread and consumed infrastructure (and lives) with no resistance at all being applied. (I can still remember fighting grass fires in my youth with wet sacks and knapsack sprays.)

  6. Geoff McFadden says:

    Great piece, and thanks for the note of optimism amongst what is becoming a very sorry summer. Yes, we can do something and we must.

  7. Damute Kolos says:

    We are not estimating the effect of tons of carbon monoxide gas resulting from uncontrolled burning bush, -an impact on health causing prolonged hypoxia and health hazards for those in circulatory or respiratory impairment. We have forgotten those old CO indicators that we used to keep next to our gas or wood burning fires.

  8. Umberto Boffa says:

    Terrible fires and summer for all Australians but… the worse fires on record in Victoria at least were in 1854 when “half the state was on fire.” Trouble is there are many many more people, properties and sadly many more fatalities involved this time round


    Bert Boffa

  9. Jo McCubbin says:

    Thankyou and well put. Now is the time to talk about this

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