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:
- 29 November 2019: The MJA–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: Australian policy inaction threatens lives
- 14 November 2019: The 2019 report of the MJA–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: a turbulent year with mixed progress
- 15 April 2019: Resilient health systems: preparing for climate disasters and other emergencies
- 20 August 2018: Inequity amplified: climate change, the Australian farmer, and mental health
- 16 April 2018: Health burden associated with fire smoke in Sydney, 2001–2013
- 16 April 2018: Pollution, climate change, and childhood asthma in Australia
- 16 April 2018: The Lancet Countdown down under: tracking progress on health and climate change in Australia
- 16 April 2018: Preparing medical graduates for the health effects of climate change: an Australasian collaboration
- 9 April 2018: Climate change: a brief overview of the science and health impacts for Australia
- 18 April 2017: Understanding and managing the health impacts of poor air quality from landscape fires
- 16 November 2015: Climate change is harmful to our health: taking action will have many benefits
- 19 May 2014: Climate change: health risks mount while Nero fiddles
- 15 March 2010: An open letter to politicians on climate change and obesity
- 18 January 2010: Health, bushfires and political procrastination
- 7 December 2009: Climate change and human health: recognising the really inconvenient truth
- 2 March 2009: Dengue and climate change in Australia: predictions for the future should incorporate knowledge from the past
- 5 January 2009: Disproportionate burdens: the multidimensional impacts of climate change on the health of Indigenous Australians
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:
- 18 November 2019: Future doctors demand climate change action now
- 4 November 2019: Blanketed in smoke, contemplating climate change
- 4 November 2019: Wasteful health care: double burden on patients and environment
- 9 September 2019: Kidneys and extreme heat: a climate consequence
- 2 September 2019: Health consequences of displacement: what future for Tuvalu?
- 22 July 2019: Doctors need to meet challenge of climate change
- 15 April 2019: Australia’s healthcare system: can it cope with climate change?
- 15 April 2019: Planetary health or planetary sepsis?
- 3 December 2018: Children and climate change: no time for games
- 3 December 2018: Lucky country lagging as climate change risks lives
- 9 April 2018: Health and climate change: call for urgent action
- 4 December 2017: How climate change can spread respiratory infection
- 18 September 2017: GPs on front line of climate change health
- 26 June 2017: Health and climate change: time to lead
- 5 June 2017: Health voices on climate change: are governments listening?
- 13 March 2017: Record heat a grim reminder of what’s to come
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.