On Wednesday, January 15, the Science Minister, Karen Andrews, will convene a roundtable meeting of scientists to develop a response to the “devastating and surprising” bushfire catastrophe1.
There are several points about the previous paragraph which scream out for comment. Firstly, the fact that we had a science minister was something I probably knew, but it had slipped from my memory, as Andrews has been such a low-profile minister. When reappointed to her ministry after the May federal election she said she was planning to embrace scientists to inform the Morrison government’s response to climate change, arguing they will be able to “prove beyond doubt” that human activity is changing the climate. The fact that this stupid statement was from 2019 is depressing, as scientists had shown beyond any reasonable doubt that climate change was due to human activity in 1990, almost 30 years ago2. I say it was a stupid statement, because science can ‘prove’ nothing3; it can only disprove hypotheses, and as the climate warmed, the hypotheses that it was the sun, volcanoes, Milankovitch cycles or something else were all examined and found unable to explain the warming. The only remaining hypothesis which could explain it was the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere4.
Secondly, it is ironic that the Coalition government has a science minister, given all the time they have spent denying science, whether it be climate change5,6,7,8 evolution9 or vaccination10. Indeed, some members of the government parties want to set up a body for the purpose of denying any science they do not like11. It is satisfying, but not sufficient that Prime Minister Morrison has now ‘admitted’ that the government now ‘believes’ climate science, something he said they had always done. This is a demonstrable lie, but for Morrison, that is far from unusual8.
Thirdly, Andrews referred to this season’s bushfire catastrophe as ‘devastating and surprising’. That is also a lie. While they have indeed been devastating, they are not a surprise. Economist Ross Garnaut was commissioned to examine the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy, and to recommend medium to long-term policies and policy frameworks to improve the prospects for sustainable prosperity. The review was commissioned by the Opposition Leader at the time, Kevin Rudd, and by the Australian State and Territory Governments on 30 April 2007. After his election on 24 November 2007, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd confirmed the participation of the Commonwealth Government in the Review12. Garnaut, in turn, commissioned scientific reports on various aspects of climate change and these formed the basis of parts of the report, which was released in 2008. One of these, by Lucas et al. (2007) was paraphrased in the Garnaut report as: “Recent projections of fire weather suggest that fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020”12,13,14. Lucas et al. (2007) used the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates of global temperature rise, which at the time suggested a rise of 0.4-1.0°C by 2020. We are now at 0.8°C15, toward the upper end of the IPCC estimate. The IPCC also estimated that by 2050, we would have reached 0.7-2.9°C. Lucas et al. used these to obtain estimates of the changes in the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) as a measure of fire risk. An increase in FFDI translates to an increase in the number of days with significant fire risk. The number of Extreme fire danger days increases by 15-65% by 2020 for high end scenarios (i.e. 1°C), and 100-300% by 2050 for (i.e. 2.9°C)13,14. This was before the official introduction of the ‘Catastrophic’ rating, which Lucas et al. suggested using, and do use in their analysis. While the changes in the Catastrophic FFDI are not very different to that in the Extreme scenario, it is the return time which is startling, with some places indicating a return time, between catastrophic events of as little as three years13,14. Of course, the Coalition federal government of Tony Abbott was diametrically opposed to any review commissioned by a Labor government in waiting, let alone implementing any of its recommendations, especially when Abbott thought climate science was “crap”8.
Fourthly, not only were the government warned about the increased risk of fires by Garnaut, but they also could have been warned more recently (April 2019) by the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action Group if Scott Morrison and other ministers had deigned to meet them16. As one of the founders of the group, Greg Mullins, said: “Had we spoken back in April, one of the things we would’ve said is to try to get more aircraft on lease from the northern hemisphere because (we knew) this was going to be a horror fire season. They can be a decisive weapon. … It is very, very disappointing that we weren’t listened to earlier because we actually predicted exactly what’s happening now. Measures could have been taken months ago to make the firefighters more effective and to make community safer.” Their recommendations are given in an article on the Climate Council website17. After ignoring the group in April at a time when something could have been done about the current disaster, rather than playing catchup, the government has said that the group may be able to meet Natural Disaster and Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud in “a few weeks”16.
This government are so bereft of imagination and ability and so lacking in understanding of what expertise actually is, let alone possessing any, that they need to be consigned to the rubbish bin of historical nightmares as soon as possible. The nation cannot afford another two years of these clueless buffoons wandering around like headless chickens. We have wasted the last decade doing very little about climate change, the last six and a half years of which has been spent listening to climate change denying morons like Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, Matt Canavan, Barnaby Joyce, Craig Kelly, George Christensen8, the deniers in the Murdoch media18 and idiotic microphone bullies like Alan Jones19, when they all knew it was happening. In wasting years and in not preparing for this disaster, those above have in part caused the deaths of dozens of people and hundreds of millions of native animals. They need to pay for it.
- Lucas, C., Hennessy, K., Mills, G. & Bathols, J., 2007. Bushfire Weather in Southeast Australia: Recent trends and projected climate change impacts. Report prepared for the Climate Institute of Australia.