When fire-struck communities start talking about climate, politicians must listen
Question Time in the Senate this afternoon was dominated by discussion of bushfire and climate change, suggesting that the old taboo against linking disaster and global warming is breaking down as the situation becomes evermore grave. It was not the right time to have that conversation following the Black Saturday tragedy in 2009. It wasn’t the right time after the deadly Queensland floods of 2011, although then climate-change adviser Ross Garnaut did warn, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” After the devastating storms that swept down the east coast and culminated in the Tasmanian floods in 2016, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull cautioned that, while individual weather events could not be linked to climate change, this was exactly the kind of disaster that we could expect more of. “You’ve got to assume faster, more frequent tempests in the future and do that out of prudence.” Today, as New South Wales faces catastrophic fire conditions for the first time since the fire-danger index was changed a decade ago, the contribution of climate change is front and centre, whether the Coalition’s climate deniers like it or not.
In his statement to the Senate, government leader Mathias Cormann told us “these are difficult days”, and said that all sides of the chamber were in awe of the professionalism, bravery and dedication of the emergency-service workers fighting the fires in NSW and Queensland. “We know you are short-staffed,” he added, and perhaps the government should reflect on that, after failing to respond to warnings that this year’s fire season in NSW and Queensland, coming off the back of drought, would be severe. He said nothing about climate change, of course.
But Labor’s Penny Wong did go there in her response today: after expressing sympathy for the victims of an unfolding national tragedy, and paying tribute to the rallying emergency personnel, Wong said that when the immediate crisis passed it would be time to talk about climate change. As climate minister a decade ago, Wong was warned about the dangerous trends already underway: “We need a plan to keep Australians safe by dealing with the risk of more extreme weather events,” Wong said.
She was followed by the Greens’ Larissa Waters, who brought it home to the government, saying its complete lack of a climate policy was “pouring fuel on these fires” by making them more likely and more intense.
Finally, the Nationals’ Bridget McKenzie was left to respond, and though like Cormann she said nothing about climate, she had to respond to a series of questions from Waters about it and spent the next 10 minutes or so on her feet defending the government’s climate track record. “I don’t know how often I can stand in this place and say,” she went on, “I accept the science of climate change. Our government does.”
But the Coalition does not accept the science of climate change. If it did, the Morrison government would not be proposing to spend taxpayer money to prop up coal-fired power stations, or build new gas-fired power stations, to take one of a hundred possible examples. If it did, the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, would not be going off about “pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies” or suggesting that emergency-services chiefs warning about climate risk could be a “front for something else”.
There was a strong backlash over the weekend against the prime minister for failing to acknowledge the link between the fires and warming when directly asked, and against NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian for responding “not today” when the same question was put to her directly. The mayor of Glen Innes Severn, Carol Sparks, who was among residents evacuated, clearly begs to differ, telling Nine Media: “It’s climate change, there’s no doubt about it.”
It seems that representatives of the local community and firefighters have more credibility than most federal politicians. When they speak, journalists listen. Perhaps the media are not going to be cowed by climate deniers any longer. After all, lives are at stake. As Media Watch host Paul Barry tweeted over the weekend: “Enough Bullshit. Read the evidence, believe the science, stop mucking about. This is what our BOM says of bushfires. 1. They’re increasingly common 2. The fire season is getting longer. 3. Climate change is contributing.”
The implications are truly terrifying, and, as Ken Thompson, former deputy commissioner of NSW Fire and Rescue told ABC Radio’s The World Today, it’s not a new normal, it’s going to get worse, and it’s “a stepping stone to greater catastrophe”. Far from being symbolic, a climate-emergency declaration is the first step to acknowledging the reality we face.
“My letter to the chair highlights no less than seventeen findings from the auditor-general that require further examination by the committee – including that the ministerial panel rejected 28 per cent of applications the department recommended, and instead approved 17 per cent of applications not been recommended.”
The shadow infrastructure minister has written to the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit requesting an inquiry into the auditor-general’s report on the government’s Regional Jobs and Investment Packages.
“On September 9, Rachel Evans and Susan Price received an apology from New South Wales Police for being unlawfully strip-searched … ‘We got kettled, basically,’ Evans says. ‘The coppers went on two sides of us and started to get really heavy. Then they grabbed us…’”
“While Australia’s domestic spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, was running a foreign-intelligence operation early last year, its officers broke the law. During what was described as a ‘multi-faceted, multi-agency’ operation, they collected intelligence without a warrant, mistakenly believing they didn’t need one.”
“‘Lest we forget.’ It is a phrase Australians have solemnly invoked at memorial services commemorating the efforts of our soldiers during times of war, such as on Anzac Day or Remembrance Day. RSL clubs invoke the creed on a daily basis. But how are contemporary Australians measuring up?”
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Question Time in the Senate this afternoon was dominated by discussion of bushfire and climate change, suggesting that the old taboo against linking disaster and global warming is breaking down as the situation becomes evermore grave. It was not the right time to have that conversation following the Black Saturday tragedy in 2009. It wasn’t the right time after the deadly Queensland floods of 2011, although then climate-change adviser Ross Garnaut did warn, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” After the devastating storms that swept down the east coast and culminated in the Tasmanian floods in 2016, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull cautioned that, while individual weather events could not be linked to climate change, this was exactly the kind of disaster that we could expect more of. “You’ve got to assume faster, more frequent tempests in the future and do that out of prudence.” Today,...