The planet strikes back

Five months of flame and ash are the starkest possible warning of what dangerous, unmitigated climate change will deliver to us. We must now face up to what must be done.

Even before the weekend’s horrors, the 2019-20 fire season was easily the worst in our nation’s history. It is now shaping up as the biggest fire event in human history.

The death toll in past big events – Victorian fires in the 1920s and 1930s, Tasmania in 1967, Ash Wednesday in 1983 and Victoria’s 2009 catastrophe – was greater than our present losses, but in every other respect those were mere blips compared to what is happening this season. And who knows what the rest of summer might bring?

Having begun early last August on the NSW mid-north coast, this fire season will be the longest on record, with homes destroyed fast closing on 2000, and 500 million native vertebrate animals killed.

Crop and livestock losses will add yet more pressure to a food economy badly shaken by years of drought. The fires will push up the cost of many staples and the economy generally will be damaged, perhaps massively.

The fires have led to social disruption on a wartime scale. Aside from extreme levels of stress and anxiety across the population, there is a physical health risk from smoky air, underlined by the death of a woman from a reaction to Canberra’s smoky air last week.

Smoke from the fires has temporarily put pollution in major Australian centres ahead of the world’s most polluted city, Delhi. Vast plumes have crossed the Tasman Sea, indicated by a red sun in New Zealand and the snow of that country’s Southern Alps turned brown by smoke particles.

The fires’ carbon dioxide emissions are now well on the way to matching Australia’s “normal” yearly figure from all sources. On the basis that forests will regrow, Australia doesn’t account for such emissions. But biologists say the exceptional heat of these fires will kill enough trees to blow that assumption out of the water. So much for meeting and beating targets.

The scale of these fires is off the charts. Global attention last year was on Amazon basin burning, covering 900,000 hectares, and California (770,000 hectares burnt). But that pales into insignificance alongside Australia’s 6.3 million-plus hectares burnt this season – seven times more than the 2019 Amazon fires and over eight times the size of California’s summer from hell.

Straight after the news that 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year since records began, on Saturday several centres broke all-time heat records – in Penrith’s case jumping to just 1.1C shy of 50C. I start melting when it’s over 30C; I can’t begin to think what 50C is like.

The Bureau of Meteorology says conditions may slowly improve through summer with changing weather signals over the Indian and Southern Oceans, but we may not see this for weeks yet. Without soaking rain these vast fire grounds will smoulder until a breeze delivers enough oxygen for yet another breakout.

In the cold and dark of a German winter, far removed from the extreme drought, heat and fire confronting our own leaders, chancellor Angela Merkel said this about climate change in a New Year message last week:

“The warming of our planet is real. It is dangerous. Global warming and the crises that arise from it are caused by human activity. This means that we must do everything humanly possible to meet this human challenge. It isn’t too late.”

She asked her people to find “the courage to think in new ways, the strength to leave well-trodden paths, the readiness to venture into new territory, and the resolve to act more quickly… guided by the conviction that unfamiliar approaches can succeed.”

For the record, Germany pledges to have its 2030 emissions 55 per cent lower than they were in 1990 – double Australia’s commitment for the same period – and to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Many Germans think this is not nearly ambitious enough.

Until last spring it was not impossible to assume that a growing economy, innovative technology and democratic institutions would see us through whatever nature threw at us. Now we know Merkel is right. We’re not in charge. We have changed the climate and the planet is striking back.

Before these fires, Australian governments were able to distract us with subterfuge and spin to hide the fact that they didn’t take climate change seriously, here and internationally. That attitude will no longer work, not for any government, federal or state.

Some politicians keep raising non-issues. A favourite one is hazard reduction burning, but against that are a vanishing off-season, the vast scale needed to make a difference and the prospect of year-round smoke pollution. Green firebreaks around towns and suburbs make a lot more sense.

As for fighting fires after they take hold, in the new era we now confront helicopters simply won’t cut it. To fight the fires of the future we will need a fleet of 20 or 30 large fixed-wing aircraft able to refresh their water supply without landing, managed by the military and resourced by a permanent, fully-funded national agency.

The real issues are how we got to here – how our landscape became so hot and dry that nothing in the remarkable arsenal of modern fire-fighting will stop it burning – and what we must now do to remedy an awful situation.

There are no easy answers – tough luck for leaders used to glib one-liners. And it won’t be cheap – tough luck for politicians bleating about their budget surplus. It will require new revenue regimes – including a price on carbon.

As Merkel says, we must find the courage to tread new paths. The science is complex, the politics even more so. Ultimate success is generations ahead. To get there we need to rediscover two attributes that seem to have been relegated to history: visionary thinking and bipartisanship.

After this fire season every Australian will surely know that climate change is truly dangerous, and that all of us, governors and governed alike, must ensure everything humanly possible is done to mitigate its impact. Because if we don’t, today’s appalling news will only get much worse.

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