Culture

Sydney Was Burning Yesterday; Why Is No One Talking About Climate Change?

The Australian public are overwhelmingly blind to the effects of climate change, even when the flames are lapping at their feet. It's time for news media to do something.

NSW bushfires

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This week, my childhood town caught on fire. We moved around a couple of times when I was young, and each of the suburbs I lived spent the last few days either on fire or fire adjacent. This is an experience well understood by two kinds of groups: people brought together by a love of arson, and people from Western Sydney.

Like many, I spent my time glued to incoming footage from fire fronts in Winmalee and Castlereagh. Anyone who has lived through an Australian summer knows that the one thing Australian television does well is fire coverage. The helicopter drops the water. We see backburning. The pretty person in the borrowed uniform pretends like they aren’t getting in the way. Everything works perfectly.

But watching the coverage this week, I felt more than ever that something was missing. And that something can be tracked down to two words: climate change.

The Climate Commission has been warning us for some time that climate change would lead to prolonged drought and bushfires. This is a risk that CSIRO believe is likely to increase in South East Australia by up to 25% come 2020, and 70% by 2050. While there are many factors that make Western Sydney fire prone around this time of year, it’s not hard  to see the connection between climate change and our extended bushfire season.

This year, fire season started ten days after winter ended. Yet as I changed from channel to channel, no one was mentioning climate change. We were told by various bushfire experts that we are staring down the barrel of another record-breaking summer — yet no one is saying why.

We can no longer afford to divorce the disease from the symptoms. Climate change must be named. When the Australian public sees images of devastating bushfires on their nightly news, they should hear that this is the real world result of a changing climate, in a land already prone to extremes. Any reporting that falls short of this is an injustice to our intelligence.

Why is this the job of news media? The simple answer is because it’s one of the most pressing issues in our country right now, and it’s being ignored. Someone needs to show a duty of care to the Australian people, and it’s becoming abundantly clear we cannot trust the government to do it.

The incoming Coalition Government has already cut $300 million dollars from its direct action climate policy. This is a policy that, even at full strength, just wouldn’t work — and stripping it back shows both an ignorance and unwillingness to attack the problem seriously. Don’t worry, though, you won’t be hearing any scary reports from the Australian Climate Commission: Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott has already indicated he may disband it.

Just yesterday, facing the likelihood of a Sophie Mirabella loss, Coalition MP and climate skeptic Dennis Jensen put his hand up to take over the role of Minister for Science. As someone who has personally argued with Mr. Jensen on the topic of climate change (a classic Twitter argument, in which Jensen went from politely suggesting typical but understandable climate denialist concerns, to flatly refusing to believe peer-reviewed work), I would suggest this appointment would be both typical of the new Government, and cataclysmic for Australia.

Yet our election last week overwhelmingly gave office to representatives of unscientific and ultimately harmful policies. The Australian public are overwhelmingly blind to the effects of climate change, even when the flames are lapping at their feet. This is due to a disconnect we’ve made between climate change as a thing that scientists and politicians talk about, and climate change as a thing that causes real weather extremes which threaten businesses and lives.

Australian media needs to stop pretending climate change is something that only exists during policy debates. This is simply not true. We are seeing the effects of climate change now.

The above image is from the Bureau of Meteorology from last week’s Drought Statement. As indicated, areas that are light green have received average rainfall over the last sixteen months.

This is just the tip of the rapidly-melting iceberg, and Australians should be furious. If our politicians aren’t capable of speaking intelligently and acting swiftly on climate change, they should fear repercussions in the polls, and the association of their names with the disaster zones their inaction helped create.

A group in the United States has received over 75,000 petition signatures in an appeal to rename hurricanes after politicians who deny climate change. Perhaps it’s time we consider a similar proposal for our bushfire season.

After all, if my home is one day lost in the flames, I certainly won’t be forgetting the names of those responsible.

James Colley is a writer/comedian from Western Sydney. He blogs at fineanimalgorilla.com and tweets at @JamColley.

Feature image via Burtknot, under a Creative Commons license on Flickr.