Victoria White: Australia is burning but the match was set by emissions of all nations

Victoria White: Australia is burning but the match was set by emissions of all nations
Residents look on as flames burn through bush on January 04, 2020 in Lake Tabourie, Australia. A state of emergency has been declared across NSW with dangerous fire conditions forecast for Saturday, as more than 140 bushfires continue to burn. Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images.

The bushfires threatening Australia are not just due to that country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Australia emits 0.3% of the world’s carbon emissions. That is the percentage of its responsibility for the local climate, which has caused its bushfires.

Little Ireland, far away on the other side of the world, has a fifth of Australia’s population and emits 13.3 tonnes of carbon annually per person, as opposed to Australia’s 17 tonnes.

We emit just 0.13% of the world’s emissions, but we are the third-worst emitters, per person, in Europe and we share responsibility for burning Australia.

Therein lies the massive difficulty of tackling climate change in political terms.

Greenhouse gas emissions have no nationality.

Climate change is a global problem that demands a global response.

Our political system is still organised as independent nations competing with each other. This will have to be transformed to a system of transnational co-operation, if we are to survive the climate emergency.

Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison’s so-called Liberal government is confronting the horror show by trying to keep alive the fiction that their nation is standalone.

Ozzies have always had bushfires. Ozzies know how to deal with them, is the argument.

All this talk about climate change is just for “raving inner-city lefties,” as Morrison’s deputy,Michael McCormack, said.

Morrison still speaks a language that should be extinct, of “balancing our global responsibilities with sensible, practical policies to secure our environmental and economic future.”

This is exactly the language which then-taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, used in reply to then-Green TD Trevor Sargent, in 2006, when he announced in the Dáil he was “not responsible for the planet”and would not commit “economic genocide” by controlling carbon emissions, as Sargent suggested.

A firefighter manages a controlled burn near Tomerong, Australia. Around 2,300 firefighters in New South Wales state were making the most of relatively benign conditions by frantically consolidating containment lines around more than 110 blazes and patrolling for lightning strikes, state Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said. Photo: AP/Rick Rycroft.
A firefighter manages a controlled burn near Tomerong, Australia. Around 2,300 firefighters in New South Wales state were making the most of relatively benign conditions by frantically consolidating containment lines around more than 110 blazes and patrolling for lightning strikes, state Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said. Photo: AP/Rick Rycroft.

I don’t believe a TD in Ahern’s party, Fianna Fáil, would speak that language now, but many of them probably think in it, because it is a language that is understood both nationally and globally.

It is clearly mad to set a match to the planet in a bid to secure its economic future, but it may not seem so mad to a politician of a certain cast, in a democratic state, to raise his nation’s fraction of one percent of global emissions by exporting more coal — or, in our case, perhaps baby formula — to China.

As it happens, Scott Morrison’s country is well-placed to act as a handy demonstration model for a burning planet.

This summer’s bush fire is the size of Scotland and has so far killed 25 people and perhaps half-a-billion animals. While the annual bush fires in New South Wales would typically burn up to 280,000 hectares, this year 10m hectares have burnt.

One third of Australia’s koala bear population is said to have perished in a few hours in late December, leading some experts to describe them as “functionally extinct.”

Last year was the hottest year in Australia’s history, fully 1.52 degrees above its long-term average. The two hottest days since records began were December 17 and 18, with average temperatures of 40.9C and 41.9C , respectively.

In Australia, we are now seeing what a relatively optimistic outcome of climate change will be for the rest of the world, if the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel’s modelling is correct. A less optimistic outcome might see a global temperature rise of four degrees or more.

Climate change is a disaster of epic proportions for all of us.

Australian MP Craig Kelly may have caused a Twitter storm by telling the BBC there was “no trend” linking the nation’s carbon emissions to rising temperatures, but he is technically right.

Australia’s emissions are not the issue here. There is, however, one hell of a trend indicting global emissions for turning Australia’s finely balanced, habitable climate into an uninhabitable furnace.

Though people all over the world, from the Horn of Africa to the Amazon rain forest to the Marshall Islands, have suffered, and are suffering, appalling consequences from climate change, the Ozzie fires have brought the reality home to us, in this part of the world, like never before.

Smoke rises from wildfires burning in East Gippsland, Victoria. Photo released by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning in Gippsland, Australia (DELWP Gippsland) via AP.
Smoke rises from wildfires burning in East Gippsland, Victoria. Photo released by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning in Gippsland, Australia (DELWP Gippsland) via AP.

Most Ozzies still have family trees that diverged from ours in the relatively recent past. Many of us have family members now living in the city with the worst air quality on Earth, lovely Sydney, which, for the last month, has had air quality 11 times worse than is considered safe.

My sister has seen the air turn smokey in her beloved Melbourne.

We know that the smoke from the Australian fires has reached New Zealand, turning some of its glaciers brown, has made the sky of Santiago, Chile, grey, and turned to bright-red the sunset in Buenos Aires.

Yet most of us are still hoping that Australia is so far away that their disaster won’t mess with our lives. It’s all Scott Morrison’s fault, isn’t it? What you get when you elect a climate denier?

These are bogus arguments.

As fire expert Andrew Scott said on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland this week, nobody fully understands the fire risks posed by the new climate.

In Australia, unusually strong winds are part of the lethal cocktail that is burning a hole in the country’s heart. There is at least another month of summer and there is no end in sight for their fires.

However, Scott said we, too, face a massive fire risk.

In 2018, the UK was the fourth-worst-hit by wild fires in all of Europe and the largest fire was in Scotland.

There was simply more fuel in Scotland, he said. Just like there is in parts of Ireland.

I remember sitting in a friend’s house, in Leitrim, some years ago, watching the glare of a forest fire on the horizon.

In this photo released by the Australian Department of Defense, evacuees board landing craft to be ferried out to the navy's HMAS Choules, in Mallacoota, Victoria, Australia. Navy ships plucked hundreds of people from beaches and tens of thousands were urged to flee before hot weather and strong winds in the forecast worsen Australia's already-devastating wildfires. Photo: Australia Department of Defense via AP.
In this photo released by the Australian Department of Defense, evacuees board landing craft to be ferried out to the navy's HMAS Choules, in Mallacoota, Victoria, Australia. Navy ships plucked hundreds of people from beaches and tens of thousands were urged to flee before hot weather and strong winds in the forecast worsen Australia's already-devastating wildfires. Photo: Australia Department of Defense via AP.

I kept reassuring myself it couldn’t come our way.

This is our national mindset and we have to lose it. Greenhouse gas emissions have no nationality and no corner of the globe is safe from climate change.

We need a global response to this global crisis and although there is, as yet, no global political organisation, we are part of the EU, which is a start.

The EU is looking for a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels and, so far, little Ireland is at zero.

Now, at the beginning of the last decade in which we can halt runaway climate change, our Government must enshrine fast, deep, radical action on emissions in the Climate Change Bill, before the general election.

Because we set the bush fire in Australia and it is coming our way.

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