Jan 8, 2020

Between late 2001 and early 2003, during the so-called Millennium Drought, eastern Australia experienced unprecedented periods of bushfire.

By end of 2002 something well over 2 million hectares of forest had burnt along the coast and ranges of New South Wales. Cooperation in fire fighting between the re-equiped Rural Fire Service (RFS), recently reorganised on state-wide basis, the NSW Fire Brigade and specialist firefighters in the National Parks and Wildlife Service was of a high order and the loss of 200 houses over an extended 15 month emergency period was considered minimal. (A younger Shane Fitzsimmons was a deputy commissioner of the RFS and a younger Greg Mullins deputy commissioner of the NSW Fire Brigade).

Larger areas of grass fire had previously occurred in the west of the State but these were the most extensive fires that had ever burnt in forested areas. It was sometime in early 2002 I recall, when several RFS brigade captains in the Hunter Valley told me that they thought the fire was behaving ‘differently’: it was faster, less predictable. Commissioner Phil Koperberg certainly had an awareness that there were more very high danger days, more sudden and extreme events than could be recalled from the past. In early 2003 extraordinary fires in the ACT and the alpine region destroyed nearly 500 homes in Canberra in a single day and burnt nearly 500,000 hectares of Kosciusko National Park, the most extensive fire there since 1939.

In 2009 the dread Black Saturday fire in Victoria, burning over 450,000 hectares, destroyed over 2000 houses and took 170 lives but it was still possible to think that the campaign fires of 2001-3 across all of eastern Australia — which we had by and large dealt with well — were a 50 year event. Instead, in a more intense drought less than twenty years later Australia has experienced fires double the size and increasing: far more intense, harder and more often impossible for firefighters to deal with. Devastating many of our most cherished places.

Now we know how the Pacific Islanders feel in the face of inexorable climate change.

Fire has penetrated rainforest not burnt for a thousand years. The ranges of eastern Australian are home to a least half of our most threatened species but the fires are not leaving the patches and damp gullies, as they have in the past, that give wildlife shelter from the blaze. We know that there have been massive loses. A few repeats of the kind of fires we are now seeing will change the ecology of our forests forever.

Somebody with the closest understanding of fire and it’s context, Professor Ross Bradstock, has said in recent days that we confront a transformed world, ‘a coupling of people, ecosystems and fire that is now irrevocably transformed’. We are at an inflexion point in our history: our society must achieve a new level of understanding of the environment we live in and the organisation to operate within it. No less.

It is hard to imagine a time, short of war, when we more needed the effective leadership of government, the support of a Public Service capable of strong and detached strategic policy advice, the engagement of business in public/private partnership, consensus decision-making and the deep engagement of the community. Bushfires will get even worse over time if the world fails to achieve deep reduction in carbon emissions: so we need not only to rebuild after the fires but to initiate national programs to hasten the transition to renewable energy and a digital economy and to restore the capacity of the damaged natural world to sequester carbon.

It will take billions off dollars, as much as a submarine fleet.

The core institutions of climate denial in Australia — the Right faction of the Coalition, the Minerals Council, the Institute Of Public Affairs, the Murdoch media, Radio 2GB — are in positions of great power and they will probably undertake rearguard resistance with characteristic refusal to accept science or evidence.There are some signs that they are beginning to deny the scale of the fires: that well worn fake facts suggesting that the problem is the lack of fuel reduction in National Parks or that logging reduces fire in native forests, are being dusted off.

In any event the denialists are viscerally hostile to the institutions of government itself. Michael Keating, who is in a position to know, has just written about Government’s recent refusal to accept any of the recommendations of an inquiry into the renovation of the Australian Public Service. http:/ .

Their style is conflictual and they aren’t good at consensus. They have no apparent feeling for the natural world or the landscape that does so much to make our Nation who we are.

The Right faction of the Coalition removed Malcolm Turnbull in 2009, and again in 2017, partly to prevent him from addressing climate change. .The Abbott Government tried to dismantle every climate change abatement measure put in place by the Rudd and Gillard Governments, gleefully repealing the world-leading 2011 Clean Energy Package which at once reduced emissions, provided funding for the restoration of the natural environment and gave income support to low income energy users. Overall spending for environmental care and restoration, which could help us achieve up to a third of our carbon abatement targets, was cut to the bone and it has never been restored. In international meetings the Australian Government has been trying, in the interest of the fossil fuel industry, to slow global progress on emissions reduction —and we are diminished in the world.

The Prime Minister may think about how John Howard and Tim Fisher dealt with their right flank after the Port Arthur shootings, or he may not. High as the stakes were then they are now about the survival of our way of life itself. Or the Prime Minister may try to fake it.

Either way, it is hard to see that the nation will tolerate the vicious perversity of climate change denial for a great deal longer. The power of the climate change deniers threatens to drain slowly away.

Bob Debus was Attorney General, Minister For Environment and Minister for Emergency Services in the Carr Government in New South Wales

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