HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 2 MARCH 2020
In 2008 Ross Garnaut's climate change review said that unchecked climate change would lead to more hot days, droughts, extreme weather, hailstorms, thunderstorms and floods. Here in Australia we've witnessed a summer with much of that in abundance. It's been a brutal summer for the east coast. The city of Canberra was hit by severe smoke haze. On Thursday, after almost 40 days of continual operations by the ACT Emergency Services Agency, the Orroral Valley fire was officially out. That fire was the first fire to threaten Canberra since the 2003 bushfires. ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan, the first female commissioner of the ESA, has been honoured with the ACT Award for Excellence in Women's Leadership.
The recent bushfires have brought out the best in some, but for others it has led to the spreading of misinformation or even disinformation.
On 7 January the member for Hughes told ABC radio that the majority of the fires were lit by arsonists, a claim echoed by the member for Dawson on Facebook a few days later. Earlier this month the Home Affairs minister told ABC journalist Patricia Karvelas:
It started because somebody lit a match. I mean there are 250 people as I understand it, or more, that have been charged with arson. That's not climate change.
His colleague Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells went further, telling the other place that 'ecoterrorists' were behind the fires and that 40 per cent of the fires were deliberately lit.
Then there's the truth. Only about one per cent of the land burnt this bushfire season in New South Wales, and an even smaller percentage in Victoria, can be officially attributed to arson. The Queensland Fire and Emergency Services said that three per cent of the bushfires in that state this season were deliberately lit. None of South Australia's deadliest or most destructive fires are being treated as suspicious. As for that claim of 250 arsonists, New South Wales police said only 24 people were charged with deliberately lighting bushfires between November 2019 and 6 January 2020.
Misinformation around these isolated events is scary enough, but even more concerning is the level of climate change denial and complacency in the coalition. Liberal Senator Jim Molan told ABC's Q+A audience earlier this month that he was 'not relying on evidence' when it came to climate science. I'm pretty sure Senator Molan doesn't take the same approach when he's sick and going to the doctor. The Deputy Prime Minister in December dismissed concerns over climate change as 'ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies'—perhaps channelling the words of the member for New England, who clearly wants his job, but hardly reflecting the state of the science.
While the fires were burning, the energy minister was in Madrid arguing for Australia, along with only a few other countries in the world, to be able to use loopholes to meet our climate change agreements, to effectively be able to cheat our way to achieving what we promised. The Climate Council's Will Steffen called Australia's performance of those COP25 meetings 'disgusting'. The Prime Minister last year, like Tony Abbott before him, boycotted the UN Secretary-General's climate leaders summit, despite being in the United States at the very time the meetings were taking place.
The fact is that Australia is getting warmer and Australia is getting drier. The lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's sixth assessment report, Dr Sophie Lewis, wrote in December that the bushfire seasons are becoming longer, more extensive and more severe and will continue to do so if climate change continues unchecked. Dr Lewis continued:
Climate change has influenced the likelihood and severity of extremes we have experienced. For example, the November 2018 Queensland fires have been linked to climate change and scientific literature.
Dr Lewis, a climate scientist and ACT Scientist of the Year, is calling for action. She writes:
The current bushfire crisis in Australia is impacting health, industry and economy, and the natural environment. Further widespread impacts should be expected under future warming. Risk reduction, climate adaptation, policy and planning is required now.
Last year was Australia's hottest on record. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the temperature was up 1.52 degrees on the long-term average. It was also Australia's driest year on record. Globally, it was the second-hottest year since records began nearly a century and a half ago.
And we cannot say we weren't warned. As I mentioned, Ross Garnaut's 2008 climate change review warned of risks of more intense and frequent bushfires. In 2015, the Australian Academy of Science warned of the impact climate change would have on the sick, the elderly, the very young and the poor. In 2016, the government's own defence white paper described climate change as a 'major challenge'. Last year, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences said that climate change was reducing Australian farms' average annual profitability, down 22 per cent. Last month, the University of Melbourne released research, authored by Tom Kompas, Marcia Keegan and Ellen Witte, showing that the cost of inaction on climate change is 20 times the cost of action.
The Prime Minister talks about adaptation but, in 2017, when he was Treasurer, the coalition discontinued finding for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, a Howard government initiative. The Prime Minister spruiks technology as the way forward on emissions reduction. But less than a year ago, he was claiming that electric vehicles would 'end the weekend'. He was standing alongside Senator Michaelia Cash saying, 'We're going to stand by our tradies and we're going to save their utes.' So I'm not sure how seriously we should take our Prime Minister when he says that his government's answer is technology.
The Business Council of Australia has come out in support of the Paris Agreement and transitioning to net zero emissions by 2050—as has every Australian state and territory, 73 countries around the world and Australia's biggest bank and our biggest airline. COSBOA chief executive Peter Strong said climate change deniers in the coalition should 'shut up' and stop standing in the way of action. He and the small business community he represents know the cost of climate inaction. Mr Strong told the ABC last month that 'there will certainly be businesses that will close and not reopen' as a result of the recent bushfires—a tragedy that has been linked by experts to climate change.
It's not just extreme weather. Climate change is literally reshaping Australia's coastline. In March 2019, the Western Australian state government identified 55 hotspots where coastal erosion is expected to cause serious issues within 25 years. In Victoria, the state government last year warned that sections of the Great Ocean Road risk being washed away within five years—and the Apostles are slowly dwindling in number. As Crikey reported last month, erosion has melted away 50 metres of the coast in seven years at Inverloch, south east of Melbourne. That includes 20 metres of erosion since the beginning of 2019. In New South Wales, the damage to Newcastle suburb Stockton is so severe that residents are considering a class action. At Shellharbour, south of Sydney, the city council has warned that 94 homes are at risk from erosion and sea level rise. Dr Mick O'Leary, a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia, told Crikey that increased erosion was 'absolutely climate related'. Victorian Marine and Coastal Council chair Anthony Boxshall said that the situation was very likely to get worse.
Climate change is real. Australians can see it, smell it and feel it. As Nick Cave's Darker with the day goes:
I smell smoke, see little fires bursting on the lawns
People carry on regardless, listening to their hands
Australia is the developed economy that is most at risk from climate change. We need action now. It is in our interest to encourage the rest of the world to move more rapidly on climate change, rather than to be dragging the rest of the world back, as we did last year at Madrid—while they watched our lands burn; while they watched bushfires take a full one per cent of the Australian landmass.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.