Update 14 January 2020: Open letter from the Australian Historical Association.
Update 14 January 2020: The Conversation: Joelle Gergis and Geoff Cary and other articles linked.
On the inner pages of the mainstream media, and in more boutique journals, there is some thoughtful commentary emerging on Australia’s current bushfire crisis – a crisis which merits the often misused adjective ‘unprecedented’. In this context, the word means ‘never known before’, and that about sums it up.
In John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations, Irish jurist, Nicholas Kearns, says this: ‘We seem incapable of getting our heads around the idea that nothing short of radical worldwide action to reverse processes that cause global warming can save our planet’. Chas Savage, CEO of Ethos CRS, a training organisation, stresses that ‘meaningful action requires joint action through time. And in this dynamic sense, it requires a focus on outcomes – the goal of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius …’.
Also in Pearls and Irritations, former New South Wales Environment Minister, Bob Debus, remembers earlier fire crises of this century.
The Prime Minister may think about how John Howard and Tim Fischer 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.
As fires engulf us in this terrifying summer, some politicians and commentators continue to duck and weave around the link between extreme weather events and climate change. One of the arguments they deploy to dismiss the effects of global warming is that we’ve always had bushfires in Australia. It’s true, we have. Bushfire is integral to our ecology, culture and identity; it is scripted into the deep biological and human history of the fire continent. But bushfire is various and it, too, has a history — and a frightening future. The long, gruelling fire season of 2019–20 has declared something new in modern Australian experience, something we can indeed call unprecedented, and a product of climate change.
Griffiths mentions ‘the years of the great Victorian firestorms [that] are burnt into the memories of bush dwellers: 1851, 1898, 1919, 1926, 1932, 1939, 1962, 1983 and 2009’. (The parents of the present author lost a much-loved holiday house in 1983.) But he provides brief and convincing evidence that this time is different.
In the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review, which examined the scientific evidence around the impacts of climate change on Australia and its economy, he predicted that without adequate action, the nation would face a more frequent and intense fire season by 2020 (emphasis added).
There have been many books on bushfires, of course. Professor Peter Stanley, former President of the Honest History coalition, wrote Black Saturday at Steels Creek on the 2009 fires (the post has links to other material on bushfires – and use our Search engine) and reviewed Peg Fraser’s book on the same subject. That book, says Stanley, is an ‘impressively empathetic human encounter with people who experienced one of the most terrible human ordeals short of war, and who suffered the effects of that brief but profound horror ever after’. Which reminds us that bushfires are about not only great issues of policy and environment, but about people – and animals – as well.
There have been calls this time around for a Royal Commission into the fires. There was one of those after the 1939 event, too.
9 January 2020 update