Ahh, Greg Hunt has got himself into a pickle by quoting Wikipedia on the causes of Australian bushfires. This amused me greatly and I wanted to write a post making even more fun of it. Sadly, I did what I am not expected to do as a blogger and listened to the whole BBC interview that caused this. Nothing takes the wind out of a blogger’s sails than context.
Here is the quote Hunt actually made:
Bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year due to Australia’s mostly hot, dry climate. Large areas of land are ravaged every year by bushfires, which also cause property damage and loss of life.
Damn. That doesn’t look like a wrong statement and those of us in academia would pretty much agree that is the standard way to open a discussion on bushfires. Hunt then went on to say that he did not think it was relevant right now whether to determine whether the current fire was caused by climate change or not. He said we need to deal with the crisis and then the longer-term policy later in which he did not dispute that climate change may be cause of the increase the frequency of bushfires. The science is pretty clear that there has been an increase in that frequency whether it has been caused by climate change or not. The BBC interview had a scientist on after Hunt that said pretty much just that.
Now the Greens and others would like to use this event as a motive for continuing to act on climate change. I think that is a legitimate avenue to push. Abbott and Hunt clearly, for similar political reasons, don’t want to allow the debate to go there. But I think we need to step back and consider this more dispassionately and I am worried that bringing the climate change equation into this will actually undermine action on a clear policy issue.
First, having now spent 4 years in North America, let me tell you that the Coalition have come a long way on environmental issues. Importantly, they now accept environmental damage is a bad thing. This is not true of the right-wing elsewhere who don’t necessarily care what happens to the environment. The issue in Australia now is how to get a clean environment not whether to have one. This is a big change from when I was growing up. Clearly, the Coalition are not acting on carbon pollution in a way that is effective or cheap but that is another matter.
Second, the climate change equation is irrelevant to how we manage bushfires. You can have a carbon tax in Australia or world-wide and the increased frequency of bushfires will remain a problem for a century or more. Mitigating climate change is not a solution to this. It would be best that we kept it separate.
Third, that means we need to focus on bushfire management strategy. Four years ago 176 people perished in the Victorian bushfires. Now I don’t know what was done after that in policy circles. As a blogger, I will exercise my expected charge not to bother to find out. But the NSW situation should at least put on the table that it isn’t enough. We have state-wide situations in October for goodness sake. How did this happen?
As I read the media today, I see column inches and web pages devoted to climate change and the politics of that and nothing devoted to the clearly central policy issue raised by the current crisis. While they may have political motives, what Hunt said was actually more consistent with focussing on the relevant issues than what many others seem to be doing. In social media, we need to get the focus back on the real issue. Bushfires are a problem. They require a solution regardless of causes. The rate of return for investment in this is likely to be very high. Do something.