With the international authority on climate change, the IPCC, in town global warming is back on the agenda.
But their presence in Hobart is not the only reason why people have been turning up the heat on climate change. One of Australia’s hottest starts to the year has seen climate experts around the country and world tell us that our current record breaking heatwave and shocking bushfires have been exacerbated by changes in our climate.
Last week the Climate Commission - http://climatecommission.gov.au/ - released a report into the recent sweltering summer heatwave, which stated that ‘climate change has contributed to making the current extreme heat conditions and bushfires worse.’
IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri confirmed last Tuesday that with climate change ‘there is an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves… and of course with heatwaves you get drought and other problems, you get forest fires.’ ’The trend is unmistakable,’ he added.
But even with this latest consensus, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman has described blaming our recent bushfires on climate change as ‘very convenient’, while acting Opposition Leader Warren Truss has said that it is ‘utterly simplistic’ to draw a connection between the two. They say this because, they argue, bushfires are just a natural part of the Australian environment. We are the ‘sunburnt country’ after all.
These comments by our nation’s leaders seem to show their lack of understanding about climate change, which is worrying to say the least. Let’s be clear. We all know Australia has always had bushfires and always will. This is just a reality of the land we live in. And we know that climate change cannot be solely to blame for the bushfires we are now seeing. But it is important to recognise that these points do not run counter to what climate experts are saying. Changes in the climate do not directly cause specific bushfires, just like they do not directly cause any other particular weather events.
What climate change does is increase the risk of bushfires by making the conditions necessary for them – high temperatures, dry conditions, and strong winds – more frequent and severe. Not only that but these more extreme conditions intensify ‘the nature, ferocity and duration of bushfires,’ according to Gary Morgan, head of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre.
Given that bushfires are an inevitable fact of life in a fire-prone environment, and the fact climate change is going to increase the risk and severity of bushfires, we need to start thinking about what to do in light of a warming world.
Many Australians like living close to the bush. Just over 10% of homes in Tasmania lie within 100 metres of bushlands – that’s about 34,000 homes. During the horrific 2009 Victorian bushfires, 85% of homes destroyed were less than 100 metres from the bush. Whilst this desire to live near bushland may never change, in order to save lives and homes the way in which we interact with the landscape must.
We need to start a conversation about how we will live with bushfires in the future and how we will adapt our towns and cities to deal with climate change. Yet we also need to start taking seriously the task of drastically reducing our carbon footprint because without action to prevent further climate change it will only make living with bushfires all the more dangerous in the coming decades.
Although further action is desperately needed, we are hurtling forwards with a major expansion of the coal industry. This is not only concerning because of its effect on the climate, but because we are missing a real opportunity to become a world leader in renewables. Germany on the other hand has committed to becoming 100% renewable by 2050 and their renewable energy sector currently employs over 380,000 people and generates the equivalent of $11 billion a year.
We need to introduce a moratorium on further expansion of coal-mining projects and create a carbon fund to support the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy to not only protect the climate, but to ensure that we do not fall behind the world in the inevitable development of a clean energy industry.
Climate change remains understandably abstract and distant for many. And this is one of the reasons why the current heatwave has been so shocking. It is a sign to everybody that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change today. This is not only a concern for our children’s children, but something we need to adapt to today and mitigate for tomorrow.
Will Bibby is a member of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (Hobart Branch). He is currently completing a Master’s in Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford.
Aaron Wraight is a member of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (Hobart Branch). He is currently undertaking a combined Honours thesis in Philosophy and Geography at the University of Tasmania.