Kate Lamb: Australia’s fires have fuelled a heated climate change debate

Kate Lamb: Australia’s fires have fuelled a heated climate change debate
A sandstone sculpture by local fire captain Ron Threlfall showing a scene of distress in Nerrigundah, Australia, that many residents of the town may have felt as a wildfire ripped through the town. Picture: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft.

Seasonal bushfires have burned for longer and with more ferocity this year, thereby intensifying the rift between believers and sceptics, says Kate Lamb.

Returning from a morning feeding his sheep, Jeff McCole, a 70-year-old farmer, paused to view a bittersweet scene: a few droplets of rain falling onto the remains of his fire-ravaged home. “Nothing like the sound of rain on a tin roof,” he said.

By the old front door was a charred metal toy truck his grandchildren once raced down the verandah.

A collection of books, his wife’s pride and joy, had been reduced to feathery ash. And out back, the skeleton of a Valencia orange tree, planted by his mother 65 years ago, was now laden with baubles of charcoaled fruit.

Seasonal bushfires have struck Australia like never before, making for months of monster blazes and toxic haze, and instigating a polarising debate over climate change.

But in Buchan, a conservative-voting farming town in Victoria state, most locals said the fires had nothing to do with global warming.

Climate change was “a load of crap”, said McCole, an idea pushed by city folk with “no experience in the bush” and no understanding of Australia’s punishing,cyclical climate.

“We’ve had severe droughts, and everything like that, 70 years ago,” said McCole.

“It just keeps going around in circles. If you wait, it’s going to change.”

For decades, scientists have warned that climate change would increase the risk of extreme bushfires in Australia.

This year, record-breaking drought and heat coalesced on tinderbox land. Before rains slowed their spread, the fires had burned 12m hectares, destroyed 2,800 homes, and killed 33 people.

One billion native animals died. Australia has one of the world’s highest carbon footprints per capita and is one of the largest exporters of coal and gas, so governments have been reluctant to adopt climate change policies they say could undermine the economy.

Now, the government is under increased pressure, from environmental groups, scientists, and broader swathes of the Australian public, to address climate change. “People are more fearful of the future, because they glimpsed the future this summer,” said Lesley Hughes, a professor and climate scientist at Macquarie University.

“I think it has been really wounding of the Australian psyche.”

In January, polling by the Australia Institute, a Canberra think tank, found that 79% of Australians said they were concerned about climate change; with 47% “very concerned”.

But the reremains scepticism that the severity of the fires is due to climate change, with many conservative politicians and media suggesting that arson, the length of cyclical droughts, or poor management of flammable vegetation are more responsible.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, who had previously declined to discuss the link between climate change and the fires, recently acknowledged the connection but said his priority was managing the economic impact. Last week, Morrison cited “hazard reduction”.

This includes controlled burning to reduce the amount of flammable vegetation in the bush, which he said was as important as reducing emissions.

Climate scientists say that the bigger problems for Australia are longer droughts and hotter summers. Controlled burns are a deeply emotional issue in Buchan.

“Climate change or not,” said Donald Graham, a farmer. “These fires were a disaster waiting to happen.”

When the bushfires hit the town on December 30, they roared in on three fronts, with a ferocity that no locals had ever seen. For more than a month, fires had raged ominously in nearby bushland, finally bellowing in with “one heck of a red glow,” McCole said. From the verandah of his home, on 400 hectares of rolling hills, he watched a giant orange plume crest over the hill and rain down fiery embers.

“We only had ten minutes to get out and I think that was the best call I ever made,” he said.

For years, local farmers had urged the government to carry out burns to reduce the “fuel load” or the accumulation of trees, underbrush, and dry grass that can turn a small bushfire into an inferno. But it never happened.

Chris Hardman, the chief fire officer for Forest Fire Management Victoria, said that his agency had planned to burn 246,396 hectares of the state’s public land last year, but was “unable to do so, because it would have been unsafe”.

Scientists also say the drought and hotter weather mean there are fewer days that vegetation can be safely burned. Richie Merzian, climate and energy programme director at the Australia Institute, said it was not a case of failing to implement techniques that had worked in the past, but that such techniques were “insufficient to address the scenario now”.

“You can’t blame the dry conditions and say it has no relevance to climate change,” he said. “It’s a combination of many different climatic changes that can be linked back to the overall trend.”

Last November, Australia’s deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, described climate change concerns as those held by “inner-city raving lunatics”.

That messaging appeared to resonate in Buchan, where McCole said: “They blame our cows” (referring to earth-warming methane), but “they are all jumping on trains and cars and God knows what in the city and there are millions of them, flying around the world in jumbo jets.”

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