Originally published in The Canberra Times on January 25, 2020

by Ebony Bennett
[Originally published in the Canberra Times, 25 January 2020]

“Unprecedented” is the word that comes up again and again. But the more often this extreme weather churns out new surprises, the more the word “unprecedented” seems inadequate to capture this new hostile climate.

 A sheep stands in a paddock in the wake of the Dunns Road fire. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

People are joking about when the plagues of frogs, locusts and darkness will hit Canberra, but at this stage a plague of locusts would feel par for the course. In the space of weeks – sometimes days – Canberra has experienced three maximum temperature records, suffocating smoke pollution, out-of-control bushfires that closed the airport, an apocalyptic hailstorm that killed birds and stripped trees bare, and now an enormous dust storm. Elsewhere, the drought continues. It will only get worse unless we start reducing emissions rapidly.

“Unprecedented” also seems inadequate to describe the Morrison government’s response to the bushfires – and while it has (barely) shifted its rhetoric on climate change, it has done nothing to change Australia’s woefully inadequate climate policies. When even conservative commentator Piers Morgan is shocked by the Liberal Party’s climate denial, we have to consider just how far from the pack Australia’s government has strayed.

Are there any other disasters of this scale where the government just ignores the major causes? Not even this spring and summer of disasters has been enough to inspire the Coalition to question its slavish obsession with protecting the coal industry. Blame has been deflected onto arsonists, lightning and the sun’s magnetic field, and the solutions offered include logging our national parks, more hazard-reduction burning and even reducing the number of national parks, because apparently we have too many in the first place.

That’s right, some people are so desperate to avoid talking about climate change that they are effectively arguing the solution to forest fires is getting rid of the forests. Seems like an extreme way to avoid having a conversation about phasing out the coal industry.

Australia is the third-biggest fossil-fuel exporter in the world. The Coalition government likes to pretend Australia’s massive gas and coal exports don’t really matter because domestically Australia produces a small proportion of the world’s heat-trapping gases (despite the fact Australia is the biggest per-capita emitter in the OECD).

Like cigarettes, every tonne of coal is doing us damage. And every pipeline of gas adds to the problem.

Among the world’s most widely respected papers and journals, there is disbelief that Australia’s leaders want to put more fossil fuels on the fire, even while the country is literally on fire. They want to know if this bushfire disaster will be a catalyst for change. Meanwhile, Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann has told the gobsmacked audience at Davos that “not every coal mine is a bad thing for the environment”.

In the words of Jerry Brown, the former California governor who oversaw the state’s response to its wildfire crisis in 2018: “under its current leadership, Australia is fostering denial in an incredibly mendacious way.”

It’s lucky for us Scott Morrison wasn’t prime minister in the 1970s and ’80s, when the world discovered chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were causing a hole in the ozone layer, which protects us all from harmful radiation from the sun. That hole is currently healing itself, after the world agreed to phase out CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances. Back then, the world acted before the science was “settled”. We didn’t complain it would “wreck the economy” or try to use accounting tricks. We took a precautionary approach and it worked.

Any economist will tell you prevention is better than cure. Better to phase out coal than close thousands of businesses, libraries and construction sites, and be forced to feed what’s left of our native animals by helicopter. But Morrison is taking a high-risk path. Burn the coal and damn the consequences.

It’s not only a dangerous approach, it’s expensive.

The cost of inaction is already huge, and will only grow bigger. Sure, the Commonwealth can swallow the cost of 100,000 face masks for Canberra this summer, but Australia can’t afford the huge impact the fires have had on agriculture, the tourism industry and small business with any kind of regularity. And things will get worse if we stay on our current course.

New Australia Institute research shows the enormous impacts of the bushfires on the economy and on people’s health. Nearly three in five Australians (57 percent) reported some kind of direct impact from the bushfires and smoke.

About 1.8 million Australians missed work due to the fires. This alone is estimated to have cost more than $1.3 billion in lost economic production, assuming only one lost day per worker – and that’s a conservative estimate.

A quarter (26 per cent) of Australians experienced negative health impacts from the smoke, representing 5.1 million Australian adults, but in NSW more than a third of people (35 per cent), an estimated 2.8 million adults, reported health impacts like troubled breathing. In Victoria, an estimated 1.9 million adults had smoke-related health impacts. The smoke got worse in Melbourne the week after this survey was conducted, so the number affected would be higher now.

Children are generally more vulnerable to air pollution impacts than adults. The survey did not collect data on impacts to children, but if we assume children experienced health impacts as often as adults did, then around 1.5 million children would have experienced health impacts as a result of the smoke.

Scott Morrison has said the government will spend “whatever it takes” when it comes to bushfire recovery. But we need that approach when it comes to prevention – which means reducing Australia’s emissions.

Thankfully, though the government’s actions are cause for despair, the response of the community provides that eternally renewable resource: hope.

Raj Gupta is a pharmacist whose home burned down in the South Coast town of Malua Bay. He kept the pharmacy open for his patients even without power, or a means to take payment.

“There’s been no power, there’s been no communication [so] we can’t take payments, but that’s not much of a concern … People will come back and pay. They are very honourable people,” he said.

There are hundreds of people like Raj, who supported their communities in whatever way they could during the crisis.

Australia Institute research shows two in three Australians (63 per cent) agree that governments should mobilise all of society to tackle climate change, like they did during the world wars. Ironically, with Scott Morrison in either denial or Hawaii, Australians mobilised themselves in response to the bushfire crisis.

All over the country, people have stepped up to do what they can to help – whether that’s by donating money, goods, a place to stay, a paddock for a horse or some lip balm and protein bars for RFS volunteer firefighters.

There are people like Erin Riley, who started Find A Bed after tweeting the offer of her paddocks for anyone fleeing the bushfires with their animals, which snowballed into a wave of giving by thousands of people across Australia and overseas. Hikers are helping to feed native wildlife until the bush regenerates. The stories go on and on. In their tens of thousands, Australians have donated their time, goods, money and services to help those in need.

The scale of the crisis is unprecedented, and it requires an unprecedented response. The community has stepped up to assist with the recovery – it would be nice if the government could at least address the causes.

Ebony Bennett is deputy director of independent think tank the Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett.

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