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When the bushfire smoke clears, who will step up for action on climate change?

The effects of the bushfires now causing so much trauma in south-eastern Australia will be felt for years to come. They will be felt by so many people, so many communities, and in so many ways.

The evidence suggests that these sort of extreme events are going to become more common and more devastating as the effects of climate change escalate.

(New Scientist cites a prediction from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that in south-eastern Australia, the frequency of days when extreme fire danger threatens will increase by up to 25 per cent by 2020, and up to 70 per cent by 2050 – though the report doesn’t give the baseline figures).

Perhaps 2013 will be the year when concerned citizens engaging with social media and other avenues can help to create a more constructive public discussion about climate change – beyond the futile, pathetic political point-scoring and false controversies that are way too common.

Perhaps it will be the year when concerned citizens make headway in holding to account the media, the politicians, and the fossil fuel industry, and in engaging the wider community in effective ways forward.

As health leaders and organisations start work on their election wish lists, perhaps they will prioritise sustainability and action on climate change.

Perhaps they will also become more proactive in countering climate change denialism, which the author George Monbiot described in an article in The Guardian this week, as “almost a national pastime in Australia”.

Monbiot, who said our “terrible weather is a warning of much worse to come”, described the powerful vested interests opposing action on climate change in Australia, as well as noting that Australians now burn, on average, slightly more carbon per capita than the citizens of the United States and more than twice as much as the people of the United Kingdom.

“Taking meaningful action on climate change would require a serious reassessment of the way life is lived there,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the US, which experienced 11 natural disasters in 2012, its warmest year on record, the editors of the MIT Technology Review have published an open letter to President Obama, arguing that addressing climate change must take top priority in the next four years.

They urge the President to be straight with the public about the need to transform the energy system “to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming”. They say:

“This is a deeply unpalatable political message. It means immediate spending and economic sacrifice by present-day voters in order to achieve benefits that will be realized decades from now. And it must be done while millions of Americans are still skeptical that global warming is taking place or that it is caused by human activity. But as extensive and exacting analyses over the last decade have shown, we can no longer wait without risking dramatic upheavals in global security and the health and welfare of hundreds of millions of the world’s inhabitants.

… You have the power and the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a new clean-energy policy that will help us avoid the worst consequences of climate change. It is quite possible that if this is not done over the next four years, it will be too late.”

When the smoke finally clears in Australia, perhaps we will contemplate the advice of a senior editor at Time magazine, Bryan Walsh, who wrote in an article titled 2012 was the hottest year in US history. And yes – it’s climate change:

“The problem is that we tend to gawk at these temperature extremes, or at multibillion-dollar storms, then shrug and go back to our daily business. That shouldn’t be an option anymore.”

As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the climate is changing and leaders have a responsibility to act.

And so do we all.

 

***

Further reading (these links were updated on 10 Jan)

• The World Economic Forum’s report,Global Risks 2013, calling for “climate-smart decision making”, summarised here at Croakey.

• In The Age, journalist Chris Hammer writes that Australia can expect more deaths from natural disasters as the climate becomes more volatile. Those exceptional days that once came every decade or two, will now occur much more often.

• This article at EcoWatch (self-described as a “news service promoting the work of more than 1,000 grassroots environmental organizations, activists and community leaders”)  links to recent reports including:

Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided - This report is a snapshot of the latest climate science prepared for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Climate Analytics. It states that the world is on a path to a 4 degree Celsius (4°C) warmer world by end of this century and current greenhouse gas emissions pledges will not reduce this by much.

World Meteorological Organization Report - This report states that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2011. Between 1990 and 2011 there was a 30 percent increase in radiative forcing—the warming effect on our climate—because of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping long-lived gases.

Emissions Gap Report 2012 - This report from the UN Environment Programme identifies a huge gap between current pledges to cut polluting greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 and the benchmark of 44 gigatonnes that offers a credible pathway to staying below 2°C.

Global Coal Risk Assessment - World Resources Institute analyzes information about proposed new coal-fired plants and other market trends in order to assess potential future risks to the global climate. The report finds that there are 1,199 new coal power plants in the works, totaling more than 1.4 million megawatts of capacity worldwide. That’s four times the capacity of all the coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Seventy-six percent of the coal plants are proposed for India and China, with the U.S. seventh in the world for coal power plants in development.

National Snow and Ice Data Center Announcement – This announcement stated that the Arctic sea ice cover was at its lowest level since the satellite record began in 1979.

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  • 1
    Apollo
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    The Swedish recycle their wastes for heating so much so that they have to import wastes from other countries. Australia should not only recycle wastes, we should also strategically clear the bush to reduce fuel in the bush to prevent mass fire but collect it for heating or power generation and reduce overall emission.

  • 2
    Hamis Hill
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Of course, Australians might continue to resist going to the extreme position of actually asking the First peoples how they survived, within the remembrance of their dreamtime traditions, the ten thousand year drought which ended about the time the first Pyramids were being built.
    Controlling the inflammable gum with cold burns in winter to ensure that the “Tucker” did not disappear altogether, etc etc etc, in catastrophic wildfires.
    When these gardeners were taken out of their managed landscaped the ugly phenomenon of the world’s largest flowering weed creating the ugly “scrub”, not seen by early European explorers, took over as a monoculture to be lauded by myopic middle-class suburban romanticists as the “wilderness” complete with “society” to protect and promulgate the arrant racist nonsense that people just should not be in the Bush, when for 60,000 years they bloody well were in the Bush.
    So what are we going to do about it, besides watching the joint burn down every summer?
    Ask the First Australians might be a good start.

  • 3
    Microseris
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    HH I think the notion that the First Australians managed the land to completely control fire is naive. The evidence suggests Aborigines burnt some vegetation communities to enable ease of access and fresh regrowth of grassy vegetation to encourage game species for hunting. This activity maintained the park like clearings between large trees observed by early explorers.

    Certain vegetation communities can be effectively managed in this way with annual fires – grasslands and grassy woodlands. However many cannot and are irreparably damaged by frequent burning – wet sclerophyll, rainforest even heathlands. All lose species diversity if burnt too frequently before regenerated plants can mature sufficiently to flower and set seed (some years for many species).

    Going back to old strategies is no longer possible particularly in southern Australia as many areas of remnant bush are now islands of habitat in a sea of agriculture. Our biodiversity is already under such severe stress there is no longer large refugia for animals to retreat to if these islands are intensively managed for fuel reduction.

    Many of us who live in the bush understand this reality and plan accordingly. This land is fire prone and if we intend living near the bush we better get used to it.

  • 4
    Mark out West
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Croakey for a great article. I read the report by McKibben in Rolling Stone, I’m 52 and very fearful for my daughter and son’s future and that of their children. It’s not the end of the world but here comes the hard times in amounts never seen by humans before.

    It’s simple we are planning to burn 5 time the amount of carbon that will put us over the 2 degrees, THEN WHAT?????

  • 5
    tonyfunnywalker
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Some more evidence of the impending crisis.

  • 6
    Hamis Hill
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Microseris, not quite so naive was a New Scientist article from many years ago now that was subsequently ignored by the MSM.
    In the Northern Territory a mosiac pattern of burning preserved some areas as for animals, while impeding the catastrophic spread of fires caused regularly by lightning strikes for example.
    The locals indicated this was their traditional strategy fro avoiding starving to death in the ashes.
    Since this threat was always present, all over the continent, it is reasonable to suspect that the fire-stick farming highlighted at the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony was not a naive oversimplification of actual First Peoples practice.
    Is anyone familiar with “The Glade in The Grove”, it apparently discusses the changes ensuing from the loss of the original “Managers”.
    The point being that Apollo’s suggestion of harvesting would replicate a prior system of management but without the fire.
    Secondary bio-diesel production would turn this waste at a rate of one litre for every two litres. with the remnant material being returned to the environment.
    Richard Bond’s process in Chinchilla, used presently for coal, is apparently modular, meaning that rural communities could obtain such a plant and could produce their own fuel, sustainably,while relieving themselves of fire dangers at the same time.
    If only there were a free-market for the production of motor vehicle fuel.
    Or indeed a more generous recognition of the need for a higher level of mental and physical fitness when living off the land as First Peoples, than is needed or even displayed among the so-called civilised population, whose prouncements are subsequently often quite naive and unreliable.

  • 7
    Hamis Hill
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Secondary Biodiesel can produce one litre of Diesel from two Kilo’s of used newspapers.

  • 8
    Melissa Sweet
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    On my reading list is Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia

    http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=94&book=9781742377483

  • 9
    fractious
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    @ Hamis
    As microseris points out (and you confirm in your most recent post) what applies wrt fire regimes in one place does not necessarily apply in another. Your simplistic and ill-informed opinions on fire regimes uncannily resemble what the great bulk of the MSM “journalists” write on the subject, not to mention “luminaries” such as Flannery (who orta know better) wrote a few years back.

    The fact is that fire regimes appropriate to vegetation communities can vary within the space of a mile or two, so your pontificating on the assumed manner in which aborigines used fire in *some* parts of the NT is of no relevance to other parts of the NT, and of no relevance whatsoever anywhere else.

    “naive oversimplification” about sums up your contribution.

  • 10
    Mark out West
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    AP HH MICRO I think you are missing the BIG picture, BIG PETRO is planning to ship 5 times the amount of carbon that will put us over the 2 degrees warming = a new world of extremes.

    Unfortunately the old ways won’t cut it and BIG business will tell us that our life style is in danger.

  • 11
    Microseris
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    HH as I said my comments relate primarily to southern Australia which hasn’t seen patch burning for over 150 years. In the south, this patch burning had its place however could not be applied to all vegetation communities. Therefore in fire prone areas this type of burning is no solution to bushfire which needed to be intense and crown for say wet sclerophyll regeneration (clearly not a patch burn).

    I would have serious concerns with more extractive industries in what’s left of our bush. You can be sure that the requirements of our native fauna will be a minor consideration.

  • 12
    Microseris
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Mark out west. I agree, I think we are screwed. Just fighting the rear guard action..

  • 13
    Margo
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Many of us are more than a little perplexed at the urgings of our local governments to the effect that we must become a ‘sustainable’ community, we must achieve economic growth, and we must significantly expand our population. The theory seems to be that our overall carbon footprint can be reduced only by initiatives made possible when there are more people. However, the claims that, “Australians now burn, on average, slightly more carbon per capita than the citizens of the United States and more than twice as much as the people of the United Kingdom’ and that,“Taking meaningful action on climate change would require a serious reassessment of the way life is lived there,” provide important reminders that, other than fairly unimaginative forms of high-density housing and pathetic attempts at public transport, we have heard or seen very little about how governments are proposing to steer Australians towards lower levels of consumption and resource use. On the contrary, what we see are pervasive encouragements to utilise more than more resources: eg shopping malls full of unnecessary junk, mega-big-box outlets on city fringes, multi-buy discounts, and an obscene array of electric appliances to perform every imaginable specific kitchen and household activity. Re-assessment of the way life is lived here? Bring it on.

  • 14
    Hamis Hill
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Fractious, you are probably not a New Scientist reader, which in itself might render your views rather parochial in their naivety.
    MY apologies for not being able to provide a link to the article in question, read by many, many people, world-wide at the time but eliciting no response in the local media.
    Which media, by way of explanation, seems cater for people like you, Fractious. Pompous ignoramus is a description which springs to mind.

  • 15
    Hamis Hill
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    MIcroseris you are probably quite correct to suppose that a extractive industry based on the profit motive might be inevitably destructive of environmental values.
    If, however the shareholders were the local community, as in the example of the co-operative movement which opened up the Bush in the first place, then perhaps more reliable methods could be guaranteed.
    But the fact remains that some sort of funding for environmental protection must be found just to cover the inevitable expenses which cannot all be covered by volunteers.

  • 16
    Liamj
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    @ Margo – re-assessment of our standard of living only happens in theory, and only occasionally. Nobody is voting for less, and nobody will accept the 50 maybe 90% less needed to approach sustainability. The growthist suicide cult seems unstoppable.

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