Dr Liam Phelan is a senior lecturer in the school of environmental and life sciences at the University of Newcastle.
IS it appropriate to talk about the link between climate change and bushfires even as fires are still burning? Even as lives are threatened and lost, property is destroyed, and firefighters are still battling?
Adam Bandt, the federal member for Melbourne, came under attack last week for referring publicly to the link between climate change and the more than 90 bushfires that were burning across NSW.
There are two key issues in play: the link between climate change and extreme weather events, and how we as a society should respond to that link.
To the connection between climate change and extreme weather events first: Mr Bandt is correct in making the link. As much as we might not like to face up to the facts, climate change increases the probability of extreme weather events occurring.
The link between climate change and extreme weather events is like stacking a deck of cards: when playing cards you can always be dealt a bad hand, but you know something isn’t right when you get the bad hand over and over.
There is always the chance, however small, that unprecedented raging fires in mid-October may have occurred in NSW – even if we weren’t busy over the past decades burning fossil fuels and filling the atmosphere with the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
So, we can’t say that any particular fire was caused solely by climate change.
But we can say particular extreme events were made a whole lot more likely because of climate change. This is well established, and has been demonstrated clearly for large-scale events such as heatwaves and floods. We’ve been able to do this for a while.
One example – from 10 years ago, now – is the heatwave that struck western Europe in 2003. That event caused fire damage and agricultural losses valued at more than €13billion. It also caused 35,000 premature deaths. That heatwave might have happened anyway, but it was unusual – like all extreme events. Climate scientists estimate climate change made that particular heatwave about six times more likely.
The second issue is appropriate responses to climate-implicated extreme weather events, and the damages they cause. Immediate responses are essential, especially when lives and property are at risk. That’s why we have emergency services.
But we know that climate change makes extreme weather events more likely.
And we know that climate change is human-caused. That is, as uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, our actions are implicated in extreme weather events.
We also know that greenhouse gas emissions have increased markedly especially in the post-war period – and are continuing to rise.
In short, even though we know climate change means more – and more serious – extreme weather events, we’re continuing to make climate change worse.
Adam Bandt came under fire for talking about climate change while fires are still burning.
But here’s the thing: climate change is a problem that has been a long time in the making. It’s a problem that governments acknowledged more than 20 years ago. It’s a problem that’s important enough to keep talking about – until we resolve it.
Even when we choose to make every effort, climate change will take a long time to resolve. In fact we’re still a long way short of having made every effort. And with every summer – and now spring – that passes, the challenge becomes all the greater.
A price on carbon is one step in the right direction. In comparison to the challenge we face, it is a tiny step but an important one, because it reflects the community’s interest in tackling climate change proactively. Frankly, given the damage climate change promises, in the form of more and more extreme weather events and the certain loss of life, it beggars belief that any major party in this country has a policy ambition to scale back and wind down action on climate change.
These bushfires are terrible. As hard as it is to hear, these bushfires are, in part, human-made. If an interstate MP from an inner-city seat can speak out about climate change and the bushfires that have caused such terrible losses in our regions, surely our local members representing those directly affected can do the same. It is incumbent on those in leadership positions in our communities to speak out on climate change.
If not now, when?