Australia: Fire regime of climate change set to make the financial crisis look like a garden party
The Age ~~ Melbourne ~~ Tuesday February 10 2009
Fires the deadly inevitability of climate changeBy Freya Mathews
The disaster challenges the Government to accept evident truths.IT IS only a couple of years since scientists first told us we could expect a whole new order of fires in south-eastern Australia, fires of such ferocity they would simply engulf the towns in their path. And here they are.
The fires we saw on Saturday were not "once in a thousand years" or even "once in a hundred years" events, as our political leaders keep repeating. They were the face of climate change in our part of the world.
These fires are simply the result of the new conditions that climate change has introduced here: raised temperatures, giving us hotter days than we have ever experienced before combined with lower rainfall giving us a drier landscape. Let's stop using the word "drought", with its implication that dry weather is the exception. The desiccation of the landscape here is the new reality. It is now our climate.
Perhaps we can adapt to this new climate by completely rethinking and reprioritising our fire defence.
But can we adapt to it if it gets worse? It was only by chance that a cool change came through on Saturday. What if the pattern of the heatwave that occurred in the last week of January had been repeated? If instead of the cool change on Saturday evening we had had three or four days of above 40 degree temperatures? How much of our state, how many of our towns and outer suburbs, would have been engulfed?
People are comparing last Saturday to Ash Wednesday and Black Friday.
But this misses the point. We should be comparing these fires to the vast and devastating fires of 2002-03, which swept through 2 million hectares of forest in the south-east and raged uncontrollably for weeks.
They have been quickly forgotten because, being mainly in parks, they did not involve major loss of human life or property.
But it is to this fire regime, the new fire regime of climate change, rather than to the regimes of 1983 or 1939, that the present fires belong.
Saturday showed us the terrifying and desolating face of climate change.
The heat was devastating in its effects even without the fire.
In the fruit bat colony at Bellbird on the Yarra, hundreds of bats died as they had during the heat wave a week earlier.
Wildlife carers reported many incidents of heat stress and death among native animals generally.
This means, of course, that out in the bush, unreported, vast numbers of animals were suffering.
We can all see the trees and other plants dying in our gardens and parks. Our local fauna and flora are not adapted to these extremes.
With wildfire, this heat death becomes a holocaust, for people and for animals and plants. Yet we are only halfway through summer. How many more lethal episodes of extreme heat will we have to endure in the coming weeks, let alone the coming years?
Meanwhile, the Federal Government is wondering how to inject stimulus money into the economy, how to get rid of the surplus accumulated over years of boom times.
It is planning simply to give much of it away, as hand-outs. It has made the usual little token allocations to climate change mitigation, allocations that will in no way deflect the coming holocaust.
The Prime Minister weeps on television at the tragedy of Saturday's events. He looks around uncomprehendingly, unable to find words, unable to find meaning.
But there are words. There is meaning. This is climate change. This is what the scientists told us would happen. All the climatic events of the past 10 years have been leading inexorably to this.
Yet this is just the beginning, the beginning of something that will truly, if unaddressed, overwhelm us.
As the events of Saturday showed, the consequences of climate change will make the financial crisis look like a garden party.
But there is a synchronicity here that must not be missed. The extraordinary economic measures for which the financial crisis is calling provide a perfect opportunity to fund the energy revolution for which the crisis of climate change is calling.
If the Government does not seize this opportunity, if it persists in its self-serving refusal to name the truths of climate change, then the terrifying world into which we were plunged, momentarily, on Saturday, will become the world that we will have to inhabit.
Freya Mathews is a research fellow in the philosophy department at La Trobe University.