Measuring the bushfire tragedy and what we can do next

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The HMAS Choules was instrumental in evacuating people from fire-ravaged Mallacoota (Screenshot via YouTube)

Now that the damage has been done, it's time to think forward to how we can prevent another large-scale bushfire tragedy from happening again, writes Dr Kim Sawyer.

THREE WEEKS AGO, we sat on the foreshore at Mallacoota. No doubt many Australians have. Mallacoota was as it had always been, a benign inlet adjacent to the Croajingolong National Park. Now the pristine is overwritten by a sense of tragedy. Mallacoota was ground zero for a catastrophe that was inevitable, a price paid for decades of denial. 

Every Australian will feel the emotion of this tragedy. We measure tragedy by lives lost, properties lost, stock losses, the dollar cost of recovery and the more than 12 million hectares burnt. But we must also measure it in terms of old-growth trees destroyed, by the wallabies, potoroos, kangaroos, insects, snakes, skinks, fish, birds, koalas and quolls killed and all the other species I have omitted.

This is an existential crisis for all species. We need to co-exist with other species but we have not found the way. We are custodians of this land. We have failed.

The Croajingolong National Park was not the only national park devastated this summer. Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island, Stirling Range National Park in WA, Kosciuszko National Park, Alpine National Park in Victoria, the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area — the list goes on.

As early as December, more than 10% of NSW’s national parks had been burnt. By the end of the summer the figure will multiply. A preliminary estimate of the number of animals killed up to December by the University of Sydney was 500 million, but that was before the South Coast, East Gippsland, Murray Valley and Kangaroo Island and Stirling Range fires. Catastrophic is an insufficient word to describe what has unfolded. 

With this tragedy, as with many others, individuals feel powerless. There is an outpouring of emotion that I witnessed at Foodbank at Yarraville at the weekend. Cars lined up for miles, people wheeling trolleys of food. It represented the contagion of emotion. We want to restore what we have lost but we can’t. We want to reboot but we can’t. We feel powerless.

Inevitably, we blame leaders. Inevitably, there is scapegoating. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is an obvious target and he deserves to be. He symbolises the Nero we should never have elected but did. There are others who should be scapegoated but won’t be. Climate change denial has needed facilitation. Those who should never have been listened to have been regardless. The scientists who should have been listened to have not been heard.

We know there is a problem with coal. We know there is a problem with the Murdoch media. Regrettably, their toxicity is correlated. The rest of the MSM are not without blame. They have underreported the scientific evidence. They have rarely provided constructive suggestions. They have been more interested in clickbait than long-term solutions.

Individuals are powerless, but not entirely. We have to respond and we can, but let’s be specific. The response should be at three levels: global, national and individual. At the global level, we now have no option. We can be at the forefront of climate change action. Perhaps a global climate change summit, but a different type of summit. A video conference across the planet with representatives from every country allowing town hall discussions; a conference without carbon expensive flights; a conference hosted in Mallacoota rather than Canberra; a conference emphasising practical initiatives rather than targets that can be fudged.

Australia could propose an international firefighting initiative to co-ordinate firefighting across countries, rather than requests for assistance that are often too little and too late. We need the best satellite technology, firefighting technology and co-ordination to confront the problem. We need targets, but we also need action. 

Then there is coal. In 1971, conventional coal and oil power plants accounted for 88% of electricity supplied in the UK. Between April and June in 2019, it fell to an all-time low of just 0.6%. In Australia, coal accounts for 75% of power generation; globally it accounts for 38%. Australia must lead by example. Just as we have been able to supply the world with coal, now we can supply the world with renewable energy. That should be our target. We have no option.

At the national level, the first two Ministries in the Federal Cabinet should be climate change and water management. I would go further. Let us increase many-fold the budget of the CSIRO. If there is one thing to emerge from this crisis, it is that the scientists were right. Let us give the scientists the right to make decisions on forests, soils, fire management, on water. If necessary, expand the Federal Parliament so that 20 scientists are members of the House of Representatives. We do not need scientists as advisers, we need them as decision-makers. 

There are other national implications. We should consider the possibility of a civil defence force responsible for defending this nation from natural disasters. We need to reassess the risk to our nation and how to manage that risk.

The evacuation at Mallacoota showed the importance of amphibious landing vessels. We only have one landing ship, HMAS Choules, which was deployed at Mallacoota and two amphibious assault ships including HMAS Adelaide also being deployed in this crisis. The HMAS Choules was a UK landing ship bought by Australia in 2011 at a cost of $100 million. In comparison, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported in November last year, Australia's new fleet of 12 attack submarines is now estimated to cost about $225 billion to build and maintain, up from an expected $50 billion three years ago. Why do we have such priorities?  

We must also respond at the individual level, not a knee-jerk response but a continuing response. Climate change can only be fully addressed when it is addressed by all of us. We have been brought up to be maximisers rather than minimisers. One of the adages of Erasmus was “nothing to excess”. The most destructive path is the one carried to the most excess. So why can’t we have one water bottle rather than ten, one flat-screen TV rather than five, one car rather than three cars and two SUVs? Why do we have ten rooms when we live in three?

Ultimately, all of us will have to recognise that less is more. It may determine whether we can escape the flames.  

Dr Kim Sawyer is a senior fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

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