If you want a glimpse of the future and a foretaste of what a climate change has in store for Australia, then look no further to the unfolding catastrophe in New South Wales.
The NSW government has taken the extraordinary step of declaring a state of emergency. It gives emergency services extended powers to manage the threat to life and property. For the next 30 days police and other emergency services will have the power to forcibly evacuate populations and shut down utilities in threatened areas.
However the worst of it is far from over.
By the middle of this week conditions threaten to create a “super fire”. Three large fires burning in the Blue Mountains are at risk of joining up, creating a monster fire. Hundreds of thousands residents on the outskirts of Western Sydney may be directly impacted or face mandatory evacuation.
Already the cost has been high. Hundreds of homes have been lost, while one resident died defending his home.
One cannot find fault with work fires services in NSW battling the fires consuming the Blue Mountains and other parts of the state. Hundreds of fire-fighters are coming from states such as Victoria to assist. The courage and dedication of fire fighters has rightly been praised. Without doubt their efforts have saved lives and prevented an even greater tragedy.
But let’s not pretend climate change is not a factor, for surely it is.
NSW is experiencing the “worst bushfire disaster in 45 years” and it’s far from over.
It is the month of October, early spring, far from what has been traditionally the height of Australia’s bushfire season. While it is worth noting fires are not uncommon in early spring, the scale and intensity of the fires we’re seeing is unprecedented.
In an interview with ABC Radio, Victorian Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley drew the connection:
“Some may say it’s part of climate change, it probably is, the fact we’re seeing a different climatic condition coming across to affect the south-eastern side of Australia, (is) really important for us to understand this summer…”
For much of this year experts have been discussing and warning us about fires such as these. Their reasoning is simple and straight forward, readily understood by anyone with the willingness and wit to accept the science.
The world is warming thanks to human activities. As a consequence we’re loading the dice in favour of more extreme weather events through increased greenhouse emissions. The physics and chemistry is indisputable.
Bushfires have been a regular feature of the Australian environment. However, a warming planet creates conditions where the genesis of infernos like that raging in NSW are more likely.
While some have sought to “normalise” the fires as simply one more example of Australia’s sometimes harsh environment, the situation is unprecedented.
To draw attention to these unprecedented extremes is not to “politicise” the NSW’s bushfire tragedy: it is merely drawing attention to the inevitable consequences of global warming.
As Australians it is imperative we understand and talk about the connection between climate change and the increasing frequency and ferocity of these fires.
Thus, attempts by conservative politicians and parts of the media to shut down anyone who makes the obvious connection politicises the issue.
It is also doubly insidious act of censorship and control.
Firstly, these attempts at censorship are not made to spare the feelings of the victims of the fires, but to distract the Australian public from making the obvious connection.
Secondly, for decades Murdoch’s media empire and conservatives have preached climate change is either non-existent or a trivial problem. But when the impacts of climate change hits hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians, as they are in NSW right now, it is simply not possible for the sceptics to back track on decades of denial and obstruction.
To accept the problem as real, and draw the connection between climate change and the NSW inferno would be an admission of their culpability. Thus their desperate, indeed shrill, demand that no-one talk about climate change even when the worst of it is upon our communities. Their only true concern is that of their own reputation and the preservation of their world view.
This spring and the summer that will soon be upon us are precursors to years of climate disruption.
From this point forward, indeed the next several centuries, will be a time of increasing struggle and attempts hold off total collapse. The challenges will slowly ratchet up, and for a time most will not appreciate their connections. But slowly, and perhaps far too late, the pattern will emerge to even the most oblivious.
Paul Gilding in his book The Great Disruption offers valuable insight into what the future may bring:
“The science on this is now clear and accepted by any rational observer. While an initial look at the public debate may suggest controversy, any serious examination of the peer-reviewed conclusions of leading science bodies shows the core direction we are heading is now clear. Things do not look good…”
Gilding notes we should expect an “economic and social hurricane”:
“The science says we have physically entered a period of grate change, a synchronized, related crash of the economy and the ecosystem, with food shortages, climate catastrophes, massive economic change and global political instability. It has been forecast for decades, and the moment has now arrived…”
Without doubt we are witnessing the first stirrings of this period of transition and disruption. Get ready for each summer to be a time of high anxiety, of emergency declarations and the acrid smell of smoke.
Already I fear the day when Melbourne will experience a tragedy that will surpass the Black Saturday fires of 2009. The source of my concern?
Projections point to a time, well before 2100, when Melbourne will experience a 50 degree day. It is almost impossible to imagine the impacts of such extremes. But the portents and signs are there for those willing to look and draw the necessary lessons.
Go, turn on your television and stare into the fire and at the charred remains of streets and homes.
The shape of future infernos is there, taking form in the Blue Mountains.