Catastrophic fires—pathetic climate policies the elephant in the room

With a new record-breaking heat wave producing catastrophic fires across the country, why is there so little discussion about climate change?

The severity of the heatwave has set off alarm bells. The Bureau of Meteorology had to add a new colour to its chart, deep purple, to extend it over 50 degrees Celsius. A record national average temperature of 40.33 was recorded on Monday 7 January, one of a string of seven consecutive days with temperatures over 39 degrees. This almost doubled the previous record of four days above that mark in 1973.

Although the panic that this will be the “new normal” suggests that many recognise climate change is the most obvious contributing cause, there has been remarkably little discussion of this in the mainstream media. Simon Devicha from the Environment Institute at University of Adelaide surveyed 800 articles on the heatwave and the bush fires and found only ten articles had made a connection to climate change. Yet the Bureau of Meterology’s David Jones pointed out, “Clearly, the climate system is responding to the background warming trend. Everything that happens in the climate system now is taking place on a planet which is a degree hotter than it used to be.”

In the midst of a major heatwave and terrible bushfires, why is there so little talk of climate change?

The extreme heat is not limited to Australia and climate scientists are warning this is just a taste of what’s to come. In the US, 2012 was not only the year of Hurricane Sandy, but the second worst year on record for extreme weather including wildfires, hurricanes and droughts and recorded the warmest weather since 1895 for 48 out of the 50 US states. The Global Carbon Project predicts that global average temperatures will rise a further four to six degrees by the end of the century.

Carbon tax

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has tried to avoid the issue of climate change, anxious to avoid drawing attention to the government’s unpopular climate policies. The best she has mustered so far is, “while you would not put any one event down to climate change … we do know that over time as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events”. Instead her focus has been on congratulating the firefighters and talking up disaster relief.

Instead of recognising the severity of the climate crisis, Gillard has downplayed both the crisis and the scale of the action that is needed to avert it. Worse her carbon tax has undermined the broad public support that
existed for climate action when Labor was first elected. Besides being completely ineffective, ordinary people are paying for it with cuts to their living standards. Meanwhile, Liberal state governments in Victoria and NSW are trying to stop new wind power developments.

It is clear that the “new normal” for the government is to avoid the issue of climate change while the planet heats up and the fires wreck havoc. What we need is a program for the mass rollout of solar and wind power to replace coal and gas power stations along with big spending on new public transport. As the climate crisis becomes even more extreme, forcing the government to tax the rich and big polluters to pay for this becomes all the more important.

Jasmine Ali

Magazine

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