20 January 2020

Bushfires - Is climate change to blame?

Climate change continues to dominate the commentary surrounding the fires that have ravaged eastern Australia in recent months as if all of a sudden we have found the culprit for the Aussie bushfire. The Australian climate is clearly warmer than it was 50 or even 20 years ago and the last decade was officially the hottest on record. It’s very hard to deny this continuing global trend and I’m not debating the data nor its seriousness – nor should I, as I have no expertise in any of this.

A string of hot summers and a long drought has certainly contributed to our current crisis, but it seems our collective memory is very short and it was a little strange to hear the Science Minister Karen Andrews in parliament recently call the latest fires “surprising” as if this is somehow a unique occurrence.
This summer, tragically, 29 people have died, and 17 million hectares of land has burned – bringing with it massive impacts on livelihoods, communities and native flora and fauna. This is awful, but it is not unprecedented.

In the summer of 1974-5, 117 million hectares burned (15% of the entire continent) but this event lacked publicity because of its minimal impact on communities. In the Northern Territory, in 1968, 40 million hectares burned, and again, in the summer of 2002, 38 million hectares of the Territory burned. We have recorded fires as far back as the Black Thursday fires of 1851 when 5 million hectares burned. More recently the Black Saturday fires in February 2009 only burned half a million hectares but killed 173 people and destroyed over 2000 homes.

The latest fires were massive, but I reckon an exclusive link with climate change is a myopic and convenient answer to a much broader problem.

Firstly, it’s myopic because we forget what I just described, our recorded history of massive fires. But also, because we ignore how perfectly our landscape has adapted to bush fire. Localised and large scale fires have been, and will remain, common to, and vital for, the Australian landscape. This is Australia, not Alaska – we already were the hottest continent on earth and it wants to and even needs to burn. Fire is one of the most important forces at work in Australian ecosystems. Fire is, as Bill Gammage described, “drought with legs and the majority of plants deal with both in the same way.” 70% of Australia’s flora either need or tolerate fire. Thousands of species would cease to exist without the regular, direct intervention of fire. Most of the approximately 700 species of eucalyptus trees across the continent need some aspect of fire to germinate, grow or fend off competition. The oil within their leaves is highly resistant to drought yet also highly flammable in fire – they actually promote fire. And when the fire has passed a miracle of regeneration takes place renewing and nourishing the tree and its surrounding landscape.

For tens of thousands of years, the Indigenous peoples of the Australian continent have learnt how to harness ‘cool’ fire for re-creative purposes – to control or promote specific kinds of plants and nurture habitats into which native animals may feed and reproduce – so that food is predictable and plentiful for consumption. In addition, Aboriginal communities would regularly burn specific areas of their tribal lands so that, unlike the present situation, fuel levels on the ground were reduced and fires were less explosive. Tim Flannery, in his 2002 work The Future Eaters, writes that “The use of fire by Aboriginal people was so widespread and constant that virtually every early explorer in Australia makes mention of it. It was Aboriginal fire that prompted James Cook to call Australia ‘This continent of smoke’.”

Adjunct Professor, Bill Gammage’s outstanding book The Greatest Estate on Earth (from which I’ve drawn extensively) has left me in awe of how the Indigenous custodians of our land insightfully tended their environment and how Australian flora is so finely and uniquely tuned to thrive in this inhospitable land. But I am also left dismayed that the Australian environment of 2020 is almost unrecognisable from the Australia of 1820 and there is little hope of slowing that trend at present.

Secondly, I’d argue that the exclusive link to climate change is also a little too convenient or easy. Hanging the debate on something as global as climate change enables us to shift the blame solely to politicians, big business and forces beyond our responsibility. I’m not letting our leaders off the hook, but they are ultimately us, and us is very conflicted in what we want.

We want a pristine environment but our high-consumption way of life is in direct competition with that desire – from our flat pack throw away furniture, to our second vehicle, our international flights, our almond milk lattes and our expectation that all kinds of food are available all year around.

We convince ourselves that putting out our yellow bin and installing solar is doing our bit for the environment. Or at a national level, we feel righteous by not building any new coal fired power plants yet happily dig up and sell as much of the black stuff as we can to power all the coal fired power plants around the world. Sure, some protest when an Adani or a Santos want to make a new hole in the ground, but for the most part, economics win almost all the time and our politicians and super funds are simply echoing the collective hunger for more. If we (I) were serious about our environment, let alone the planet – we would all have to lower our standard of living and rethink much of what typifies modern life. On a mass level, we would have to reject tokenistic environmentalism and radically change the way we live. Could I do that?

Aboriginal communities lived a low carbon, environmentally symbiotic lifestyle that Australia in 2020 can never return to. Eden is lost, the landscape is permanently changed and in many places unrecognisable from the Australia of 1788. We have trodden heavily over this ancient land, it has suffered greatly and so it is hardly surprising that from time to time we, in a kind of environmental karma, suffer along with it.

While the habitually outraged love to direct their anger on social media at the Prime Minister for taking poorly timed holidays, or governments for “not doing enough” or primary industry for environmental vandalism – I guess all I am saying is that we each need to look at our own lives before throw stones at others. We are all part of the broader problem. We are all implicated in the groaning of a continent that dispossessed its custodians, disregarded the wisdom of indigenous land management and in the classic words of Joni Mitchell, greedily “paved paradise with a parking lot.”

Gosh that’s such a depressing ending and I just can’t leave it there...

I predict the next three decades of this century will be just a revolutionary as the 60’s and 70’s were in the last. The seeds of the future have already germinated and the young global citizens of today just might have the motivation, technology, adaptability, and – in the not too distant future – the power to affect change on a global scale. My hope is that they do so with great respect for the ancient wisdom of our Indigenous Australians. I suspect it may be too late for my generation to lead the way because we are the product of a very different time. But it is not too late for Gen X and their parents to be the supportive shoulders on which they stand.

As a Dad with three children, I wonder, what passions will I nurture in them? What experiences will I give them to shape their perspective on the world and on environmental stewardship? And, personally, how will I do more than write words and have good intentions?