Open letter from Australian historians on climate change, drought and bushfires: an important statement

The Australian Historical Association is urging all its members to sign an important Open Letter on the bushfires, drought, and climate change. The letter and link for AHA members to sign. Hundreds have signed already.

The letter is a thoughtful and considered statement on these issues and is reprinted below for information. A small collection of resources on bushfires and their implications.

An open letter from Australian historians

Drought and Bushfire Crisis

As Australian historians who feel deeply connected to this country and its people, we extend our deepest sympathies to those who have suffered, and who continue to suffer, through the drought and bushfire crisis that afflicts large parts of Australia.

We deplore the loss of human and animal life, the loss of natural and built heritage, and the damage and destruction wrought on places loved by Australians of all backgrounds.

Our history tells us that Australia is a fragile continent which has always demanded respect from its custodians. For at least 65,000 years the first Australians have cared for country sacred to them, a land that embodied their very being. They have used cultural burning to rejuvenate and nurture the land, and to reduce the intensity of bushfires. Their deep knowledge must inform the effective management of our precious environment.

In its modern history Australia has reinvented itself. Federation, post-war reconstruction and the economic and social reforms of the 1970s and 1980s present just three such examples of national recalibration. History provides us with cautionary tales of failure, but it also offers us examples of the Australian people rising to the formidable challenges of living well and justly in a harsh but beautiful country.

Unfortunately, Australia’s relatively limited action on climate change represents a continuation of poor environmental practice. Alongside many achievements in the sustainable use of our natural resources, species extinction, soil erosion, polluted waterways and introduced pests are just some of the many legacies of our historical failure to pay this country the respect it demands.

As historians we are well aware of Australia’s long bushfire history, and can confidently say that the scale, longevity and intensity of the fire events in southern and eastern Australia so far this season are unprecedented in Australia’s European history. Fifteen years ago, increased fire risk in Australia was predicted as an outcome of climate change. Reduced rainfall and increased temperatures associated with anthropogenic climate change have indeed contributed significantly to the size and ferocity of this season’s fires.

We must change while we can, and more rapidly than ever before. We acknowledge that no action Australia takes on its own can resolve climate change, but we do not accept that as an argument that we cannot, or should not, do more.

Australia can wield considerable influence as a good global citizen – as it has on many occasions in the past when it has supported collective action on common problems. Supporting and encouraging drastic global emissions reductions, will involve acting in ways that are morally responsible, both in a domestic and international context. We have done so in the past which has resulted in such achievements as negotiating the Madrid Protocol to protect Antarctica and the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer. We call on our political leaders, of all political persuasions, to do more on the international stage and at home to grapple with the formidable challenges posed by anthropogenic climate change.

We also call on all levels of government to continue the Australian tradition of looking after the vulnerable. Just as this country was a pioneer in social policy in the early twentieth century, through such world-changing innovations as the living wage, so must it act generously and creatively in the early twenty-first to protect and support those ravaged by bushfire and drought, as well as those workers affected by the necessary urgent transition to renewable energy.

As historians, we reject arguments that these problems are too big for Australia. We are a wealthy, first-world nation with an abundance of scientific knowledge and talent, and a proud history of innovation. Our past includes many instances of national mobilisation for the collective good, in both war and peace, and of innovation in science and policy that has been transformative at home and abroad.

We acknowledge that huge investment will be required to move to a zero emissions future and to protect Australians from future drought and fire events. But we also point to the rapid deployment of railways in the nineteenth century, to electrification in the twentieth, and to the development of systems ranging from sewerage to digital technologies as examples of previous rapid adjustment and adaptation.

Our present challenges are not beyond us if we act now.

14 January 2020

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