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Canberra
Friday, December 4, 2020
Ian Cubitts
Ian Cubitts

Bushfire jitters

Few who were residents of Canberra on the 18th of January 2003 can forget it. The Capital was engulfed in fire. It was not adequately forecast or prepared for, as subsequent inquiries found. The circumstances are eerily similar to what’s happening in NSW and Queensland and that saw the loss of life at the weekend.

On that day, after weeks of an advancing fire through the Namadgi National Park to the south, the temperature was at times as high as 40 degrees, the winds exceeded 80 kilometres an hour and there was close to zero humidity.

Shane Fitzsimmons, the Commissioner of the NSW Fire Service, was grimly factual when he said “never before have had we had 17 concurrent emergency warning fires burning all at once, all competing desperately for resources.”

Fitzsimmons had no doubt what was the cause of the calamitous situation: “The forecast for the balance of this season continues to be driven by above normal temperatures, below average rainfall, to dominate over the coming months. You put that across this extremely drought-stricken landscape where you’ve got no moisture in the ground, you’ve got no moisture in the fuel. You’ve got a flammability of the fuel. Fires starting extremely quickly, spreading and burning very intensely, very aggressively and very quickly.”

At the time of writing, there is a catastrophic forecast for the Sydney Basin and the Illawarra, certainly too close to comfort for the ACT. We can only hope we are better prepared as summer approaches than we were 16 years ago.

At the weekend, the Prime Minister was asked by a couple whose home had been destroyed what he’s doing “long term” about climate change. Scott Morrison evaded the question. He said he was “focussed on the needs of the people in this room today”. And fair enough. But his predecessors, Labor and Liberal, going back 27 years to the Rio Earth Summit where the scientific evidence was presented to world leaders, have had a similar myopic focus. Three-year parliamentary terms in Australia probably explain why.

There is no doubt that if Morrison’s largely climate sceptic government got serious about climate change today, nothing would immediately change. But scientists have given the planet a 2050 deadline to reduce emissions to net zero to lessen the impact. We began repairing holes in the ozone layer above the earth by banning hydro fluorocarbons, so humans can play a part.

Sure, Australia alone can’t solve the impending crisis. But if a G20 nation, the fourteenth biggest economy in the world began playing a part, joining Britain and the Europeans in leading global action, it would have weight. Oh, and by the way, Boris Johnson’s United Kingdom produces around the same as Australia: 1% of global emissions but his parliament and government have declared a climate emergency and are taking real action to curb their pollution.

We should jump on board, time is running out.

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