Sydney smog is setting off alarms

Australia can no longer deny that climate change is a clear and present threat.

In a surreal moment last week, the western Sydney headquarters of the NSW Rural Fire Service had to be evacuated during a media conference on the state’s continuing fire crisis.

The cause? A smoke alarm set off by dense wildfire smoke smothering greater Sydney. The pollution level was 11 times the level deemed hazardous by health authorities, with immediate impact on people with respiratory or heart ailments, and long-term implications for everyone.

In the same smoke-filled city, at the same time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison held his own media conference to talk about religious discrimination. Inevitably, questions turned to his government’s fire and climate response, whereupon the PM counter-attacked.

In a nutshell, he said Australia’s emissions record is second to none, that we’re meeting targets, and that emissions have lowered over the past two years. He also said state fire authorities are getting all the help they need from the federal government. Then he turned away and walked out.

Within hours NSW environment minister Matt Kean broke Liberal ranks by declaring that the NSW fires were “not normal”, that “doing nothing is not a solution”, and that “we need to reduce our carbon emissions immediately”.

A day later, with public anger mounting over the smoke in the streets and the apparently endless fires causing it, emergency minister David Littleproud announced that $11 million would be made available immediately for aerial fire-fighting.

Flying in the face of his government’s own data showing rising emissions, Scott Morrison’s claims to the contrary rely on something that no other country is doing: claiming credits left over from 22-year-old Kyoto provisions uniquely favouring Australia. In 2015 then-environment minister Greg Hunt called it “global gold standard” accounting.

A Climate Analytics report last week concluded that Australia cannot legally claim these credits, derived from large-scale deforestation in 1990, to reach its 2030 target, because the Paris Agreement does not allow such credits. The report was commissioned by the Australia Institute, which I guess the Morrison government would consider unpatriotic.

This is the sort of minefield you get into when a government pays lip service to acting on man-made climate change while effectively denying it exists. A global report last week rated Australia’s effort to curb greenhouse warming right at the bottom of the barrel, alongside Donald Trump’s US. We’re simply a spoiler.

That recalcitrant mindset was in the spotlight at the Madrid climate summit at the weekend, when Australia’s use of Kyoto credits and refusal to countenance a tougher 2030 target came in for some heavy criticism from countries which had raised their own targets in line with Paris expectations.

Now, thanks to this year’s early fire season, breaches are appearing in that once-impenetrable Coalition defence. Wildfire is a small part of the global change now sweeping across our planet, but it has the potential to change minds like nothing else.

The duration, spread and intensity of the NSW and Queensland fires is shaking not just fire-fighters but whole regional populations. An area equal to nearly half of Tasmania has so far been burnt by the fires, and they are likely to continue burning for many weeks.

Burning through dense, dry foliage, the fires have been so intense that they’re being likened to the massive blazes that are turning large tracts of Amazon forest into open savannah.

Those Amazon fires are severely degrading the capacity of tropical South America to capture and store carbon dioxide, with net carbon loss this year calculated at 14 million tonnes. Now there’s speculation that Australia’s eastern forests may suffer the same fate.

Regeneration after fire normally sees carbon captured by growing trees making up for what was lost. That assumption will be applied to the burning of the NSW and Queensland forests, so those fires will not change the bottom line of Australia’s carbon accounts.

But this season’s fires have been so severe that leading Tasmanian fire ecologist David Bowman doubts that some forests will ever fully recover. In that case, these fires will be net emitters – a figure which will not appear in official emissions data.

In a better world the Morrison government would advise its people and the international community of this accounting failure and seek to fix it. So far the government shows no sign of wanting to do that, or to stop misrepresenting Australia’s poor performance.

But endless fires and city smog on top of this year’s intense drought now make it impossible to deny that climate change is already at work: no longer a future threat but a clear and present danger. Forget global obligations – Australia has a duty to itself to lead the world in lowering its emissions.

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