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Bushfires and climate change

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 17 January 2020


A commenter has urged me not to wait until the bushfires are out before I comment on them. He doesn't think anyone cares what I think about legalised drugs (I hope he's wrong) but goes on 'Everyone is waiting to read your first post on the bush fires and climate change'. He thinks I should illustrate with some current photos of Lilli Pilli, 'where your old holiday home used to be'. How could I resist such an invitation?

Let me begin by agreeing that these fires have been 'devastating' in terms of scale, loss of life and loss of property. The pretty little town of Cobargo, which was first settled in the early 19thcentury, has gone, as have several other villages and settlements. More houses have been lost than ever before, but then there are more people than we have ever had before, five times as many as we had a century ago. If we are to think that these fires are 'unprecedented' we have to have a sense of scale. According to the ABC, there have been 140 reports into what caused bushfires, and what ought to be done in future.

We don't seem to learn quickly. As Judge Stretton said, in his report on the 1939 bushfires in Victoria:

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The soft carpet of the forest floor was gone; the bone-dry litter crackled underfoot; dry heat and hot dry winds worked upon a land already dry, to suck from it the last, least drop of moisture. Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy. But though they felt the imminence of danger they could not tell that it was to be far greater than they could imagine. They had not lived long enough. The experience of the past could not guide them to an understanding of what might, and did, happen. And so it was that, when millions of acres of the forest were invaded by bushfires which were almost State-wide, there happened, because of great loss of life and property, the most disastrous forest calamity the State of Victoria has known .[My emphasis, and my thanks to Jennifer Marohasy, who has provided a longer extract on her website.]

So, back to the South Coast of NSW. We have owned two houses on the South Coast, one in Lilli Pilli, and then, after we had sold that one, another in Sunshine Bay, or Denham's Beach or Batehaven, depending on which authority had made the appellation. We sold the Sunshine Bay property in 2014, and really haven't been back to see how it looks. It was right on the cliff edge, with quite magnificent views, which was in part why we bought it.

The man from whom we bought the house told us to keep the public land, as well as our own, grassed and short. Some boys, he said, had lit a fire on the cliff edge that had swept through to the house itself. The house was brick and concrete, but I did what he said, and used every fallen branch as fuel for our slow combustion stove. The Council agreed to remove a couple of gums which might fall on our house, but refused to remove a couple more which might have done the same, and allowed me to remove one on our property, at our expense. That was many years ago. In the forty years we had a coast house there a number of fires occurred in the area. They were extinguished without much damage to property and none to life. But the experience of the fires made me wonder why people chose to live in these forests. Fires have been before, fires will come again. Check your soil. If there is black carbon in it, there has been a fire there in the past.

Startled by the commenter's claim that one of our houses had been destroyed, though indeed the people who bought the Lilli Pilli one demolished ours and built a much nicer house, I rang our real estate agent, who said No, neither property had been touched by the fires. The damage had been done mostly west of George Bass Drive, the main beach-linking road south of the Bay, and of course at Mogo, on the Pacific Highway. I am pleased for both our successors on our properties. It must have been an incredibly scary time. For those who lived along Dunn's Creek Road and on to Mogo, I have great sympathy. That I would never have lived in those parts, because of the trees, makes no difference.

Now let's look at some of the statements of this commenter. They are typical of what we have been hearing daily for weeks now. The urge to find scapegoats of one kind or another has been immense.

The BoM has announced that 2019 was Australia's hottest year on record. Yes, but the 'record' starts in 1910. There seems to have been an even hotter year in 1909, and we don't have records for the hot seasons of the 19thcentury.

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It was also Australia's driest year on record. Maybe so, and as Mandrake's giant Nubian slave might have added, 'mebbe so not'. I would add, 'so what?' What does that tell us about what happened and what we should do in future? It sounds scary, I accept that.

Canberra, where you live, recorded its highest temperature on record (44 degrees), and is now also experiencing its worst air quality on record (from the said worst bush fires on record). Canberra's records are even shorter in length than those for Australia, and it now measures 50 km from the northwest to the souttheast. The ACT's health officer has pointed out that the smoke, while a problem, is free of the sort of particulates that make the air in Delhi and Beijing hazardous to everyone. As for all these records, there has been an increase, irregular but persistent, in temperature for the past century and more, so new records can be set every day, and may continue to do so until this warm phase is followed by a cool phase, as has happened many times in human history. Warming is generally good for all eco-systems. Why is it a worry?

The bushfires and climate change Conventionally, 'climate' is the average of thirty years of 'weather'. Whether 'climate change' is good or bad depends on what aspect of weather and climate you are interested in. In terms of temperature the world is a little warmer than it was a century ago. Is that good or bad? Significant or insignificant? It depends. 'Climate change', per se, does not cause bushfires. Carbon dioxide molecules, if you think that CO2 or greenhouse gases are central to 'climate change', do not wander around causing fires. They can't do it. Do they make things hotter? Maybe a bit. The jury is still out on that one, after forty years. Would imposing a carbon tax or something like that, have stopped the fires? No, that's too long a bow to draw.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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