I asked Richard Thornton what to do. Thornton is the chief executive officer of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, a position he’s held for more than six years. Of course, he’s an expert at bushfire management but he sets it plainly in the context of climate change. News on Monday tells us Australia experienced its driest spring ever, its second hottest ever.
Thornton says we know from climate change science the bushfre season is getting longer and cumulatively worse: severe, extreme, catastrophic. The weather conditions in November? No reason they won’t happen again. There are actions we can take to mitigate risk including conversations about hazard reduction (yes, it might be controversial to have spring and autumn prescribed burning but at least it’s controlled then. It’s out of control now). On top of all this, he says, is the pressure of resourcing the prevention of such damage to the environment, including better urban planning, stronger building codes and consistent hazard reduction.
The bushfires cost us money as individuals, not just as a nation. Mehmet Ulubasoglu, a professor of economics at Deakin specialising in the economic impact of bushfires, says lost income to individuals in the 2009 bushfires amounted to $4500 on average each. The majority of those hit were poor women, women in precarious jobs. That loss is after any reparation programs were counted, so it’s loss to the individual on top of economic loss to the nation. There were further impacts on tourism and agriculture, two industries so aligned with what we think Australia is. Ulubasoglu says mitigation is cheaper and easier than recovery. He says that combined, the tangible and non-tangible impacts of the Black Saturday bushfires cost around $7 billion. We can, as individuals, lessen that impact. But we also need the nation and our slippery politicians to accept the reality of climate change.
All I can do is quote the experts. They are united. Sarah Perkins Kirkpatrick, climate scientist and Future Fellow at the University of NSW, understands exactly why my concentration has been so focused after the news of the impending grandchild. She has two children under three and remembers thinking while she was pregnant: “What the hell am I doing? This child doesn’t deserve this frankly terrible environment.”
Perkins Kirkpatrick’s research says plainly we will have more 50 degree days, more bushfires, more days when we can’t breathe. To those who say Australia shouldn’t change its behaviour because it’s a tiny country, she asks how it would be if she decided not to pay tax. How would it be if we all decided not to pay tax? As she reminds me, we are about to head into stage two water restrictions in NSW. Do we just decide to keep using the water we want? No, we all have to have short showers.
“The single most important thing we can do is to reduce our fossil fuel emissions. We export coal. We don’t need to do this. We have an abundant – an abundant – supply of renewables but we’ve got to start doing the legwork now.”
Which means we must vote for governments to take action, including funding bushfire services to their full needs. Peter Hannam wrote late last month that the NSW government had tried to pretend there were no cuts to the number of trained National Parks and Wildlife Service firefighters.
We know the federal government has hacked into funding for climate change science research: CSIRO, ARENA, the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. But what can this old grandma do herself to work against that inaction? Martin Rice, head of research at the Climate Council of Australia, urges actions big and small, individual and collective. Use renewables. Take public transport. Eat less meat and more vegetables. Think about where you invest your money. Get your local council to join the Cities Power Partnership. Use your voting power. Make sure parties have strong climate policies and grill them on it. I’m in. We need to save not just the lungs of these babies but their lives.
Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.