6 February 2020.

Australians have been deeply shocked by the intensity and extent of the bushfires and other extreme weather events. Millions of people have been directly affected, especially along the east coast where fires were burning from September in Queensland, and by New Year’s Day extended down to the horrific fire storm at Mallacoota. The whole world was transfixed by the images of thousands of terrified people huddling on the beach while their town burned. With roads cut by the spreading fires, it was days before many could be evacuated by sea or air.

Tragically more than 30 people died in the fires by early February and more than 3,000 homes were lost, along with farmland, property and at least 80,000 head of stock. With over 12 million hectares of farmland and forests burnt, the toll on wildlife was unprecedented, with estimates of up to a billion native animals killed.

Tens of thousands who were told to evacuate vulnerable farms, towns and holiday destinations along the coast, yet the impact of the fires was felt far more widely. The smoke, sometimes at dangerous levels, covered the entire coast and extended far inland, even to Canberra and well beyond. Alarmed about the astonishing fire threat, even in the major cities people cancelled holidays, hurting businesses relying on them and the tourist industries, including with international travelers.

Growing anger at failure of Morrison government

Many Australians are very angry about the government’s failure to prepare for the fires or respond adequately. Astonishingly Mr Morrison in January took holidays in Hawaii, without publicly announcing it. Did he not know or was he not advised that the whole country was facing a critical fire threat? Walking in the bush was like walking on crackling potato chips. Farmers in many places said they had never seen such parched lands, even in areas that were usually moist and green at that time of year.

Even more astonishing was the failure of Mr Morrison to listen to the advice of the leading former emergency services chiefs in the country. Led by Greg Mullins, former commissioner of NSW Fire and Rescue, they wrote in April 2019 asking for a meeting to warn of ‘catastrophic extreme weather events’, and again in September, but received no response. How good is that, Mr Morrison?

Prime Minister Morrison declared at his election he would ‘burn’ for Australians, but Australians did not want their county to burn for him, especially as his government has failed to develop policies to address global warming. In the view of former Liberal Party leader, John Hewson, Morrison ‘is almost totally beholden to the fossil fuel lobby’ and has no climate action plan or energy policy.

Morrison’s handling of the bushfire crisis has been seen as bumbling and inept, but even more disturbing is his evasion and dissembling about the underlying cause of the prolonged three-year drought and the exceptional heat. He was reluctant to talk about climate change, urging us instead to focus on immediate relief efforts.

As the Bureau of Meteorology reported, 2019 was the nation’s hottest and driest year on record, fully 1.52℃ above the 1961 – 1990 average. and globally is likely to be the second hottest on record. Many places in Australia broke temperature records for December, including at Nullarbor which reached 49.9℃.  Penrith in Sydney reached its new record of 48.9 degrees shortly after on 4 January.

Climate experts have rebutted the view that this is just a regular fire season, pointing out that this year’s fires were more extreme and far more widespread, stretching from Queensland down the coast to Tasmania and South Australia, and even Western Australia. Most significantly, there was no El Nino event that is typically associated with previous severe fires. Further the fires were preceded by the hottest and driest conditions on record in Australia.

The fires were followed by intense weather events and exceptional dust and hail storms that caused extensive damage to buildings and cars including in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. Insurance costs are estimated at $2.1 billion, while the losses in agricultural output could reach a further $4 billion, 0.2% of Australia’s GDP. The carbon emissions from the fires amounted to 350 million tonnes of CO2, about two-thirds of our annual emissions.

Charting a way forward: Ross Garnaut’s vision

Given the urgency of the climate change threat, one could be tempted to despair at the failure of recent Australian governments to devise sensible climate policies. But the state governments have been working on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in effect to net zero by 2050 and put Australia on a more positive path, with the advice of many in the business community and scientists.

One of the most prominent climate experts is Professor Ross Garnaut whose new book, Superpower: Australia’s Low-carbon Opportunity, is attracting wide attention. Currently professorial research fellow in economics at the University of Melbourne, Garnaut produced two important reviews of government policy on climate change in 2008 and again in 2011. He has no doubt that Australia could produce all its electricity from renewables by the 2030s reliably and at lower cost.

Garnaut summarised his views in The Age of 18 January 2020, warning that Australia was ‘a drag’ on global efforts agreed to at the 2015 UN Paris climate conference to hold the increase in temperatures below 2 degrees and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees. To do that would require the whole world to reach zero net emissions by 2050.

Garnaut strongly supports a price on carbon as the best way to reduce emissions, but reluctantly accepts the political reality that before the 2019 election the Morrison government had ruled it out. He therefore considered even without a carbon price how to cut emissions by 50 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030 and to source half our electricity from renewables. Expanding renewables will reduce prices and gradually force coal generators to close.

Garnaut highlighted these points:

  • Accelerate the move in Australia to electric cars by providing vehicle charging facilities and reform electricity pricing rule.
  • Reduce the ‘fugitive emissions’ of methane and carbon dioxide from coal mines and gas processing, and by purchasing credit from the Australian farm sector through the Abbott government’s safeguard mechanism.
  • Augment offsets for ‘fugitive emissions’ through sequestration of carbon in Australian land and pastures. He writes that ‘carbon farming can be a great Australian rural industry’.
  • Australia also has the endowments to be a ‘globally competitive source of biomass for plastics and other carbon-based chemical industries.’

Garnaut is well aware of the need to create employment and argues that with its low-cost renewable energy Australia is ideally placed to revive Australian manufacturing, processing our iron, aluminium and other resources, exporting hydrogen and electricity, and creating many more jobs than those in the coal and gas industries currently.

Garnaut is trying to help shape Mr Morrison’s ‘evolving’ responses to climate issues. The Prime Minister is surely aware that the business, scientific and mainstream church communities are all pressing for urgent action to address the challenges of climate change. And the fire season is far from over.

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