Let’s talk about Bushfires, Climate Change and Coal


It’s easy to understand why there’s widespread support for politicians and others who argue we shouldn’t talk about climate change in the middle of a bushfire emergency.

When you’re fighting to keep your house, grieving over the loss of a loved one or putting your life on the line to protect others lives and property, people talking about climate policy or how these kinds of events will become more common and more severe is very uncomfortable.

This very human response should be understood and people who are suffering loss, or fear of it, should be treated with sensitivity. That’s an argument about how we talk about it, but certainly not a reason to avoid doing so. This is actually the perfect time to talk about climate change and about climate policy – it couldn’t really be better.

People don’t like talking about uncomfortable things.  It makes us feel, well, uncomfortable. The thought that major bushfire emergencies in spring could become more common, with people dying and houses and communities being destroyed is very uncomfortable. The fact that we in Australia are making a disproportionately large contribution to the problem by polluting more per capita than any other developed country and now plan a massive expansion in our coal exports which, when burnt, will make climate impacts worse around the world, is particularly uncomfortable. But it’s still true.

That’s why, right now, in the middle of a scary, hard to control bushfire emergency that threatens homes and lives is exactly when we should talk about it.  Right now, while we’re paying attention to the reality of our pollution’s results, rather than thinking about it as some long-term global risk we can emotionally detach from. Right now, while we’re facing climate change for what it is – an expensive, disruptive, dangerous risk to our quality of life. A risk that we are actively contributing to making worse.

Members of Tony Abbott’s new conservative government, including Cabinet ministers, have been strident in their attacks on those who raise this connection. This is unsurprising given they have a lot to lose if people accept it.

Of course no one can blame the government for these bushfires nor draw a direct causal relationship between any particular fires and climate change. But this is one of NSW’s worst bushfire emergencies, referred to by state fire fighters as “unparalleled” given the season, with a state of emergency declaration allowing authorities to forcibly remove people, cut electricity and water supplies, and demolish buildings. Sure, we’ve always have bad fires but with one this big, in the middle of spring and coming after Australia’s hottest ever September, you would, to use a great Australian phrase, have to be a “flaming drongo” (complete idiot) not to be wondering about the connection. Especially given the science is so clear.

That’s why Tony Abbott’s government doesn’t want us to talk about it. Everyone knows the new government is resisting action on climate change. But politicians here can’t say that. Unlike America, where climate denial is a badge of pride for conservatives, in Australia they have to take a subtler line. The Australian public accepts climate science and believes the world should act. So our conservative politicians have to say they accept the climate science (even when they don’t) then argue that Australia should act slowly and cautiously and not before the world does – in other words say the right things but don’t take much action. Well, except to dig up and sell as much coal as we can before the world wakes up to our game.

That’s why linking climate and fires is scary territory for conservative politicians. It’s hard to overstate how iconic and powerful bushfires are in the Australian psyche. They bring out the best in us. Courageous, mostly volunteer fire-fighters risk their lives to protect others and are correctly seen as heroes. The tragedy of fires brings communities together and we open our hearts and wallets to those affected in these all too regular fire events that symbolise summer. So connecting politics to this iconic Australian symbol is both dangerous and alluring. Observe for example the conservative shock–jock Neil Mitchel who, while attacking those who link fires and climate change this week tried to side with the heroes, saying “This is one of those times we pull together and when the Australian spirit famously shines through….. I remember the spirit that builds around times like this. It is magnificently Australian.”

So let’s be clear, the resistance from conservative politicians and commentators to linking climate change and fires is not just driven by compassion for those suffering loss. It is the manipulative politics they’re accusing others of. As the old quote goes “Hell hath no fury like a vested interest disguised as a moral principle.” If the public learns to relate natural disasters that go to the heart of the Australian psyche, like fire, drought and flood, to climate change – those who resist strong climate policy will be in serious trouble. So will their policies promoting the massive expansion of coal mining.

But perhaps the most important reason for talking about climate change and bushfires is so we end our denial of what’s to come.  Mega fires in spring, as we’re facing this week, are indicative of the future we face and we have some important choices to make.

Firstly, we must decide to get ready for a lot more angry summers – these are now inevitable. They’re going to be tragic, expensive and disruptive and the sooner we get our heads around that the better off we’ll be. Given what’s coming we should all be running raffles and fundraising BBQ’s for our volunteer fire fighters. We’re going to need them to be well resourced, appreciated and numerous. And we’re going to have to think differently and creatively about how we reduce the risk, as well argued by Professor David Bowman from the University of Tasmania.

Secondly we have to decide what side of history we want to be on in Australia. Are we going to be the country that that sold the coal that helped drive the climate into chaos or the ones who woke up in time and changed our ways. That’s the conversation we need to have and the middle of bushfire emergency is the ideal time to have it.

So let’s talk.

27 thoughts on “Let’s talk about Bushfires, Climate Change and Coal

  1. Thanks Paul,
    As always a thoughtful and extremely relevant article on our current predicament.
    I couldn’t agree with you more – When are we going talk about these issues, if not now – should we also leave that inheritage to our children…
    Bushfires in Aus, and people actually dying from “epic smog” in Harbin, China, huge stacks of “petcoke” piling up in Chicago… A neverending story!
    So raise your voices – speak out!
    Keep on the good work Paul
    Best regards / Sören

  2. Hi Paul et al,

    Nothing new in your article – it looks hopeless for NSW and many other similar areas…

    But there is hope! Simply because bush- and forest fires destruct bush and forest faster than Mother Nature can grow bush and forests. So within a couple of years to come… There will be no bushes and forests in NSW and many other places. Problem ‘solved’ ;-(

    On ‘conservative’ politicians: This naming is too flattering for their destructive ‘vision & mission’. In common sense terminology, ‘conservative’ is something like ‘being at the save side’. For this ‘conservative’ politicians it is better to rename them to ‘reactionary’- or ‘destructive’ politicians.

    This kind of politicians, often use a disclaimer like ‘with the knowledge that we have now….’ and they approve to drill for shale gas, and other rubbish.
    Actually their disclaimer should be ‘with the knowledge that we currently ignore’…

    Politicians have only two problems:
    1. What they SAY
    2. What they DO

    Good luck Mankind – Mother Earth will survive
    Ana Alien

  3. great article. Unfortunately in South Africa we are in a similar position – in terms of being amongst the highest per capita emitters, with lots of will still to dig up our plentiful coal deposits. Anecdotally, bushfires are increasing here too, although of course not at the Australian level

  4. Miriam Moriarty

    Tony Abbott talks piously about ‘saving’ Australian families $500 year by abolishing the carbon tax. How much more than that will we all pay in increased insurance premiums, costs to rebuild and recover the economy after each fire and flood, increased costs due to health impacts and reduced agricultural yields, not to mention billions of taxpayer $$ wasted on the dud ‘Direct Action’ policy. As Nicholas Stern said all those years ago, the cost of business as usual carbon emissions far outweighs the costs of climate change mitigation. Shame so few people in my country seem to understand this. We used to be smarter, and more caring. Not sure what happened.

  5. John Saint-Smith

    Apart from the Cockatoo Chronicle, I received two other relevant emails today. One likened the silence on environmental and any other subversive matters in Australia to the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, where thoughtcrime is the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question the ruling party. Clearly, the opposition that shouted ‘Shame! Scandal! Waste! Out of control!’ at every opportunity for the past six years has brought down a blanket of silence on criticism of its own policies.
    The other was a call by political pressure group ‘GetUp’ for a national day of action on climate change on 17th of November.
    Let us hope that the voice of reason has not yet been permanently silenced in Australia.

  6. Leif

    Hello Paul and All

    I live in the Pacific North West of the USA and we to fight the ecocide fossil Baron’s continued rape and pillage of our resources. Awareness grows, however as the stakes become apparent to the rich, so to the $$$ opposition.

    IMO it is clear that as long as “We the People” tolerate subsidizing BIG MOMEY to pollute the commons for their personal tax sheltered profits they happily will do so. After all, it is legal from their point of view. If there are associated costs to pay off lobbyist, congress folks, lawyers, a judge or two, mass media, Tea Baggers, elections, an oil spill hither and yon, etc, well that is just how the game is played. That small percentage of tax free profits is nothing more than the cost of doing business and does contribute to the GDP.

    The part that I cannot understand is why Progressives are such panty waists when it comes to the rebellion of this atrocity. After all, in our country there is precedent. The GOP do not fund abortion. Are functioning Planetary life support systems for the kidders less deserving than a rapist fetus? Stop profits from the pollution of the commons. Stop the madness. All we are asking is give GREEN a chance.

    “War becomes perpetual when used as a rational for peace,” Norman Solomon. “Peace becomes perpetual when used as a rational for survival.” Yours truly. Socially enabled capitalism is a failed paradigm. War is a prime example, as is EXXON et. al., Wall Street, etc. … Stop profits from the exploitation and pollution of the commons. Price carbon!

    Go GREEN, resistance is fatal to Earth’s life support systems.

  7. Nazar Singh Manshahia

    Dear Mr Paul
    I understand your concern for climate.But,we are facing a common problem all over the world that our political leadership have no determination to fight for the environmental degradation.To stop the damage to ecology the political leadership must realize its responsibility towards environment.

    • Michael H

      Good day from USA:

      My issue is not whether not this is occurring, it is. Or that we must change our approach to these problems, we must. My concern is who do we trust to implement these changes? The government, that has put us into war after war for profit? Or the people that virtually stopped the war in Vietnam after the grassroots efforts and information began to spread?

      Nearly half of the people that must be involved in the solutions have different politics than you. So this must be an apolitical effort that appeals to everyone. Labels need not apply as this has been an ongoing cause of gridlock from both sides (are there only two?) of this issue.

      I for one am not in favor of giving the government a dime, they have been instrumental in allowing this mess to get this far already. They have proven to me, decade after decade that they cannot implement any program on time or on budget. And this is the hope for mankind?

      Well if that is it then the earth and life will go on I am sure, humans, not so much.

      All the best,

      Michael H.

  8. Dave J

    Not just Australia, look at the Colorado megafires this last summer (followed by record floods), this is changing the long term ecology of the area.

    Conservative politics is all about the comfort of the believers, they don’t care to deal with anything that makes them uncomfortable, be it climate change, peak oil, other people’s abortions or the President’s skin color. They have a massive prejudice to normality and BAU, funded by the Corporations that conduct that business. They will believe its an emergency when they take their last breath of overheated CO2 laden smoky polluted atmosphere.

  9. TheAborigines understood the volatile nature of our eucalypt forests and ,with fire,kept them “open and parklike” according to early settlers.Otherwise how could they have hunted,struggling through the tangle of undrgrowth we now have.Unless we are prepared to treat these forests as a productive element as they did,we are destined to go up in smoke more and more frequently ,aided by our slavery to Fossil fuels.The forests dont have to be locked away as sacred objects,their wildlife would be much safer if there was better management for all.

  10. Karey Harrison

    Here’s an anecdote confirming the threat to conservative politics:
    Overheard a couple of ladies yesterday on the bus from Toowoomba (Ian Macfarlane’s conservative electorate of Groom) to Brisbane, discussing the bushfires in NSW, when one said, of course its climate change (making it worse).

  11. John Collee

    Good one Paul, deserves a wide circulation. “Self interest disguised as a moral argument” is spot on: exactly characterises the Abbot Government’s approach to messaging on a number of issues. The Germans probably have a word for it.

  12. Ken Johnson

    At this moment, our government is considering allowing the opening of the Rocky Hill mine at Gloucester, in an area already being drilled for CSG.
    At the same time, the same governments are funding hundreds of thousands of dollars into a Food Future model economy for the Gloucester region.
    The mines and CSG endanger and destroy the resource bases of water, soil and land ownership needed by the Food Future program.

    Surely, in Gloucester the choice is clear . . . a food future for Australia’s east coast, or more stimulus for climatic and resource destruction. In the former we get broad, sustainable economic and product, benefits. In the latter we get a limited and narrow economic result and future potential severely damaged.

  13. Jonathan Evelegh

    It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong. — Voltaire

    It is, of course, time that the established authorities should be disestablished and removed from authority. Good luck with that by talking about anything.

  14. It occurs to me that when it comes to Climate Change, Coalition MP’s can be categorised into 3 ‘factions’:

    1. The Uncontrollables

    This group probably accounts for around 5-10% of coalition MP’s – e.g. Cory Bernardi, Eric Abetz, Barnaby Joyce etc – who just can’t help themselves from freelancing their sceptic views.

    2. The Hypocritical Majority
    I expect that this group accounts for 80-90% of Coalition MP’s who have to say that they accept the science of climate change (when most of them don’t ) and that that are committed to action on climate change (when they’re not)
    As Paul Gilding points out in his article, everyone knows that the Coalition is resisting action on climate change, but unlike America (where climate denial is a badge of honour for conservatives) in Australia they need to take a more subtle line.

    This group sticks to the party line, pretending that the Coalition’s (Fig Leaf) Direct Action Policy is a serious policy response, when they know that it isn’t.

    3. The Hypocritical Minority
    I expect that there is a very small group of coalition MP’s (e.g. Malcolm Turnbull) who have actually considered and accept the science and who know that the Direct Action Policy is a farce.This group also sticks to the party line, but the main difference between them and the 2nd group is that it will be playing on their conscience.

    Hopefully the opposition and the media will put a lot more effort into exposing these factions in their scrutiny of the Direct Action Plan.

  15. Graeme McLeay

    Its frightening really when our PM says that the UN Climate Commissioner is “talking out of her hat” thereby revealing his ignorance of the science. It is true that fires have always been part of the Australian landscape and managed by the first Australians but the science tells us that catastrophic fires will likely be more frequent with climate change. Apart from other considerations, the economic damage we are passing on to the next generation will make the GFC look like a tea party indeed,and “Direct Action” with a cap of 3bn a sick joke.

  16. A great thank you for this article Paul.
    To say you believe the science, that indicates the impacts of climate change will be more frequent and more severe natural events, and then to say but it is not happening is not logical. It is important that the many people, and Abbott is a prime example, confront this state of denial and connect the dots.
    The more the media provide the necessary information to help this process, the better.

  17. Thanks Paul,
    Trouble is that the converted are talking to each other again.The Media do not know how to ask questions that demand thoughtful replies. Yes or Know questions are lazy and allow our pollies weasel words and wriggle room

  18. Thanks Paul.
    No one in the media is game enough to ask questions that require thoughtful answers. Yes or No questions allow our pollies wriggle room and weasel words to mix up the pot of lies and deceit which is their forte these days

  19. Will C

    This is a re-post of Paul’s article for the ABC
    (Australian national broadcaster)


    The article received 571 comments in 24 hours (it then closed to comments). It is interesting to analyse the comments. Whereas here, Paul is preaching to the converted, it seems as if the majority of posters on the ABC article are expressing their disbelief / skepticism. The arguments provided are largely untenable (straw man, ad homien, etc). However, it reflects a good cross section of Australian society’s views.

    If the aim of the article was to spark conversation – it worked! well done. Abbott running a high risk game to kill the carbon tax. Should this be a big summer of bushfires and climate-disruption events, it will be much harder to kill the carbon tax in 2014. A clever Labor party can play this one well.. big test and opportunity for new leader Bill Shorten.

  20. Spot on and timely as usual Paul. Interesting what that last comment says regards comments left on the ABC posting and the cross section of Australian views. Abbott’s positioning is preposterous and disastrous for Australia at this time and does nothing to pull our collective understanding together or lead us towards a response.

  21. Joanne Bernard

    Thank you Paul for speaking of hope in your book “The Great Disruption”. I can only hope that Climate Change will show itself in some extra ordinary way soon so we will all ban together. Perhaps it will happen when sea level rise takes out most ports around the world and overseas trade is eliminated. I live in Montana, USA. Our main economic driver is agriculture, particularly wheat that is shipped overseas. There a lots of folks in Montana who understand the issues, but the Big Money seems to
    dominate for now. Keep talking!

  22. Joan Halgren

    From an American viewer who hears and sees the madness daily, your commentator is right on: “Good luck Mankind – Mother Earth will survive
    Ana Alien”

    I hope we can do better than Ana’s sentiment but we need everyone to sing the anthem: “Give us some men who are stout-hearted men who will fight for
    the rights we adore.”

  23. Olisemeka Obeche

    Paul, your message was clear and instructive: postpone the inevitable cause of action and get ready for the dooms. Unfortunately, politicians are always playing politics with everything including the most destructive elements of human society; that is why they have not been able to take the much-needed steps needed to curb destruction of our planet. But, we must not give up on this fight…keep fighting Paul!
    Thanks for drawing our attention to this issue and remain blessed.

  24. Diana

    ” Fuckin Hell”
    I was told not to swear, but
    Hell on Earth it will be
    If we don’t change
    our ways

    I was told not to dream
    Our way of life, use of nature
    Is not sustainable
    But love always

    ” Jesus Christ”
    I was told not to blaspheme
    We can only hope that
    One like him
    Will come some

    Appologies for the use of the f word!

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