As Bushfires Rage, We NEED To Talk About Climate Change

The eastern seaboard’s fires that are raging across New South Wales and Queensland this late Spring are definitely a ‘state of emergency’. Almost 600 schools closed on Tuesday, November 12th, So far, over 150 homes in NSW and at least 12 in Queensland have been destroyed, a growing number of people are missing or injured, and many more are at risk across both states.

The scenes of devastation evoke emotional responses.

Inevitable questions arise - Why is there such devastation? What can we do about it? How does climate change factor in to the equation? How and when do we talk about it?

What’s been happening?

With our dry conditions, low rainfall and high temperatures, the bushfire season tends to start in early summer and come to an end as the weather cools down in March. But, this year’s season has seen more extreme, unprecedented conditions - think high temperatures, strong winds, low humidity, and the effects of prolonged drought - making bushfires much more difficult to contain and easier to start.

Bushfires in northern NSW and southern Queensland have been burning since the end of last week, seeing the destruction of homes, 30 people injured, and the loss of three lives. With more strong winds and high temperatures predicted, the fire risk level was increased to catastrophic - the highest fire rating level - in the Greater Sydney and Greater Hunter regions. Firefighters from New Zealand, Tasmania and the NT were flown in to assist in Queensland, and Victorian firefighters came up to help combat fires in NSW. National parks, reserves and campgrounds were closed to discourage people from putting themselves at risk, and several people have been fined for starting fires during the fire ban.

By 3 pm on Tuesday afternoon, the number of emergency warnings in place across NSW was hovering around nine and ten. By 6 pm, the number had jumped up to 14, and, out of the almost 80 fires burning across NSW, 50 were uncontained. Following a southerly change on Tuesday night, the fires continued to burn on Wednesday with more evacuations in Queensland, but the severity of many of the fires in NSW had reduced. Police are also investigating the causes of at least twelve fires across the state to determine if they were deliberately lit.

The conversation around climate

While bushfires are a necessary part of environmental management in Australia - as particular native plant species need extreme heat in order to reproduce - we are struggling to minimise the damage. With the destruction of hundreds of homes and the extensive level of deaths and injuries of wildlife, it’s clear to see just how devastating the fires have been. And, bushfires from earlier this year have also seen damage to areas of rainforest in Queensland - which rarely happens since rainforests act as a fire retardant - included 440 hectares of unique subtropical rainforest and may have been caused by a training exercise conducted by the Kokoda Barracks of the Australian Defence Force. But, climate scientists predict that these rainforest fires will become more frequent and that bushfires will increase in intensity as the effects of climate change worsen.

As a result, there’s also been a growing debate over the role of climate change in the severity of this year’s fire season and whether we should be talking about it as the fires continue to rage. Some say that we should focus on fighting the fires and assisting those who are and will be feeling the impacts of the fires, while others - including many people who’ve been affected by the bushfires already - argue that we need to talk about it now more than ever before.

What are our politicians saying?

Political discussions have become pretty heated too, with arguments between the Nationals, the Coalition and the Greens over who should be blamed for the fire. There have also been allegations that the different parties have policies that have resulted in a lack of hazard reduction - the removal of underbrush by burning to reduce the spread of future fires. And, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison has acknowledged the link between climate change and the bushfires, he has been criticised for only offering “thoughts and prayers” and avoiding questions around climate change.

Additionally, the NSW government is being accused of a reduction in funding - and the number of fire-trained park rangers - for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which may have left national parks staff unprepared. Plus, the Liberal National Party has been accused of cutting funding to the NSW Fire Services by $35 million. This lack of funding has seen some firefighters fighting this week’s fires paying to fill up their firetrucks and RFS cars with their own cash after government fuel cards were declined.

And, attendees of the Adapt2019 NSW Forum - a one-day conference where climate change researchers, members of the NSW and local governments and other experts could discuss what’s been done to minimise climate change - were advised by email to avoid discussing the link between climate change and bushfires and instead direct questions to bushfire representatives.

But, as much as some might deny it, climate change is a big contributor to the severity of this year’s bushfire season. Our bushfire season is extending and the number of fires and “firestorms” - where smoke plumes from fires create their own weather systems of strong winds, lightning and black hail - has increased. And, the increasing overlap of fire seasons across the world, such as between Australia and California, means that shared resources will become more stretched and we’ll be less able to help and receive help from neighbouring countries.

And, as the climate keeps changing and the weather becomes more extreme and unpredictable, we need to take action to prevent conditions from getting even worse.

How we can help?

While many of us might feel far away from the bushfires, there’s plenty that we can do to help those involved. We can support our rural firefighters - who are all volunteers - by donating to fire services here for Queensland and here for NSW. The Red Cross is also taking donations for those who’ve been affected by the fires here. Meanwhile Port Macquarie Koala Hospital has started a GoFundMe here to help them treat koalas burnt and injured from the fires - where they’ve already raised more than $350,000 out of their $25,000 goal - and you can help the Rescue Collective look after rescued wildlife in Queensland here.

We can continue to protest and call on politicians to take action against climate change. Early on Tuesday morning, the School Strike 4 Climate organised a snap protest outside of Parliament House to protest against parliament’s decision on the bill that would weaken environmental barriers for new coal and gas mines on the same day as the catastrophic fire warnings. The bill - which will now be debated by the lower house next week - would stop planning authorities from blocking the construction of new mines based on their scope three emissions. By turning up to protests, spreading awareness of what’s been happening, and signing petitions, we can make it clear that we want our governments to reduce emissions, move towards renewable energy sources, and work to reduce the effect of climate change and the severity of future bushfire seasons.

There is also a hashtag on social media platforms currently being used by people posting to bring their posts to the PM’s attention. If you want to post something, make sure to use #attnscottmorrison and also be sure to tag your local member and of course the Prime Minister on @scottmorrisonmp

Stay up to date on the fires across NSW and Queensland through the RFS website and the Guardian’s liveblog. And, check out this explainer of the current situation and who’s blaming who.