When he­roes talk, we should lis­ten

Ev­ery­body is talk­ing about cli­mate change — ex­cept the Govern­ment, writes Peter Boyer

Mercury (Hobart) - - TALKING POINT -

EV­ERY na­tion iden­ti­fies it­self through sto­ries – some true, some dodgy, some en­tirely myth­i­cal. Ours are about set­tlers com­ing from around the world, about fight­ing bat­tles far from our shores, about bushranger­s, troop­ers, squat­ters, drovers, in­dige­nous peo­ple and im­mi­grants.

A thread run­ning through all these sto­ries is that in this harsh, un­for­giv­ing land whose moods can turn lives up­side down, peo­ple have to be phys­i­cally tough, re­source­ful, pur­pose­ful, plain-speak­ing and coura­geous.

With wild­fire in the news, our Aus­tralian he­roes of the mo­ment, with all those qual­i­ties and more, are the ones putting them­selves in harm’s way to keep flames at bay and save lives and prop­erty.

Early in April, 23 of these peo­ple, for­mer chiefs of fire and emer­gency ser­vices in all states and ter­ri­to­ries – many still vol­un­teers in lo­cal brigades – signed a let­ter to Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son seek­ing an ur­gent meet­ing to tell him about their crit­i­cal con­cerns.

They wrote of in­creas­ingly ex­treme weather events over­whelm­ing emer­gency ser­vices and putting lives, prop­er­ties and liveli­hoods at risk, and asked for a fed­eral par­lia­men­tary in­quiry into the re­sourc­ing and equip­ping of the na­tion’s emer­gency ser­vices.

The group, which calls it­self Emer­gency Lead­ers for Cli­mate Ac­tion, sought an ur­gent re­view of fire­fight­ing air­craft, point­ing out that ac­cess to large he­li­copters and fixed-wing planes leased from the northern hemi­sphere was re­stricted be­cause of an in­creas­ing over­lap of fire sea­sons.

The PM was in the midst of an elec­tion cam­paign when the let­ter was sent, so it was no sur­prise he didn’t re­ply. It was re-sent af­ter the Mor­ri­son vic­tory. Two months later the PM replied propos­ing that the group meet with En­ergy Min­is­ter An­gus Tay­lor.

As spokesman Greg Mullins, a for­mer NSW fire chief, said last week, the group wanted min­is­ters with fi­nance and emer­gency re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to be in the dis­cus­sion, but Tay­lor de­clined to help get them to a meet­ing. They again sought help from the PM, but got no re­sponse.

As the fire chiefs had fore­shad­owed in their let­ter, the Queens­land fire sea­son started early, in Au­gust, when the Bush­fire and Nat­u­ral Haz­ards Co­op­er­a­tive Re­search Cen­tre warned it was shap­ing up to be a bad one.

In 2003 the Howard govern­ment agreed to meet states half­way in a cost-shar­ing lease of fire­fight­ing air­craft. Leas­ing or buy­ing these air­craft now costs far more than in

2003. But Can­berra’s con­tri­bu­tion has barely moved, leav­ing states car­ry­ing 90 per cent of the bur­den.

With “un­prece­dented” NSW and Queens­land fires rag­ing and with an­gry in­sults be­tween Na­tion­als and Greens MPs adding to the gen­eral din, David Lit­tleproud, whose agri­cul­ture and wa­ter port­fo­lio also cov­ers emer­gency ser­vices, has now agreed to meet with the group next month.

The po­lit­i­cal fra­cas is no sur­prise. Cli­mate change comes up ev­ery time there has been a fire or weather emer­gency, and the stan­dard re­sponse is that “now is not the time” to dis­cuss it. Aware of the per­ils of rais­ing it in fraught times, peo­ple tend to say noth­ing.

But be­tween emer­gen­cies, too, the Mor­ri­son govern­ment ac­tively dis­cour­ages dis­cus­sion of cli­mate change im­pacts and mit­i­ga­tion. Min­is­ters quickly brush off ques­tions on the topic, and we con­tinue to have to nurse their po­lit­i­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ties by tread­ing care­fully around it.

Global warm­ing doesn’t cause fires, but it does make them worse. Sci­en­tific study of the con­nec­tion finds that the way cli­mate change al­ters rain­fall, wind and evap­o­ra­tion pat­terns causes many places to dry more quickly, mak­ing fires more likely to ig­nite and spread, and far more in­tense.

Mullins pointed out dan­ger sig­nals: au­tumn-win­ter rain in south­east­ern Aus­tralia now 20 per cent be­low av­er­age, fire sea­sons up to two months longer than be­fore, and win­dows nar­row­ing for haz­ard re­duc­tion burn­ing. We face the prospect of 12-month fire sea­sons, as now hap­pens in Cal­i­for­nia.

A grow­ing cho­rus – yes­ter­day the in­surance in­dus­try added its con­sid­er­able voice – is urg­ing the govern­ment to en­gage with gen­uine pub­lic con­cerns and de­velop a na­tional wild­fire strat­egy to deal with a chang­ing cli­mate. Its si­lence on this sub­ject can­not be jus­ti­fied.

There is a sil­ver lin­ing. Drought creeps up on you, but wild­fire makes a big noise. If the warn­ing from these he­roes about ever-wors­en­ing fire sea­sons doesn’t push the Mor­ri­son Govern­ment into tak­ing cli­mate change se­ri­ously, noth­ing will.

LO­CAL ini­tia­tives to help the push to lower emis­sions are a vi­tal counter to na­tional in­ac­tion. Cir­cu­lar Econ­omy Huon is con­duct­ing an EV recharg­ing sem­i­nar for tourism op­er­a­tors at Wil­lie Smith’s Ap­ple Shed, 2064 Huon High­way, 9-11am to­day.

AT the South Ho­bart com­mu­nity’s an­nual meet­ing tomorrow (7pm, South Ho­bart Pri­mary School Hall), res­i­dents will hear about a bulk pur­chase of elec­tric ve­hi­cles.

Peter Boyer, who be­gan his jour­nal­ism ca­reer at the Mer­cury, spe­cialises in the science and pol­i­tics of cli­mate change.

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