Australia and the language of fire

There are currently 100 fires burning across New South Wales.  Fifty of them are uncontained, as the weather swings between baking hot, and blustery southerlies.

Here in Sydney, the sky looks yellow.  Soot is washing up on Sydney beaches, and clouds of dust are turning New Zealand glaciers pink.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM):

“Climate change is influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions in Australia and other regions of the world, including through influencing temperature, environmental moisture, weather patterns and fuel conditions. There have been significant changes observed in recent decades towards more dangerous bushfire weather conditions for various regions of Australia.”

BOM is not a political organisation, but an executive agency of the Australian Government, established in 1906, charged with providing weather services and advice.

See here for a joint BOM-CSIRO assessment of the State of the Climate, or read this NASA assessment.

 

The politicisation of fire

Fire affects Australians of all political persuasions.  It shouldn’t be politicised.

But that’s exactly what’s happening because what we do in response to bushfire risk intersects with economic policies and entrenched economic interests.

Twenty-three former fire and emergency Commissioners have been trying to meet with the Prime Minister since April, warning that Australia is ill-prepared for the growing severity of climate-influenced bushfires, and calling for an inquiry into how expensive, national firefighting assets might be funded and managed.

You can read their statement here.

The Prime Minister – famous for sneaking a lump of coal into Parliament – refused to meet with them.

According to him, Australia could increase its greenhouse gas emissions without making the fires worse.

“The suggestion that any way shape or form that Australia, accountable for 1.3% of the world’s emissions, that the individual actions of Australia are impacting directly on specific fire events, whether it’s here or anywhere else in the world, that doesn’t bear up to credible scientific evidence”.

According to journalist Peter Hartcher, the Prime Minister is in “frozen immobility on this because he does not want to upset the internal Coalition truce on climate and coal”.

Greg Mullins, former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW, climate counsellor, says:

“[C]ommunities are increasingly under threat from extreme weather-driven events caused by climate change.  If it’s not time now to speak about climate change and what’s driving these events – when?  This fire season is going to go for months, so do we just simply get gagged?  Because I think that’s what happening; some people want the debate gagged because they don’t have any answers”.

“The Grenfell fire in London? People talked about the cause from day one.  Train crashes?  They talk from day one.  And it’s OK to say it’s arsonists’ fault, or pretend that greenies are stopping hazard-reduction burning – which simply isn’t true – but you’re not allowed to talk about climate change.  Well we are, because we know what’s happening.”

 

Raving inner-city lunatics

Back in November, Nationals leader Michael McCormack also took offence – in grand style – at those who draw a link between Australia’s bushfire crisis, and climate change.

We’ve had fires in Australia since time began, and what people need now is a little bit of sympathy, understanding and real assistance – they need help, they need shelter”

“But why is it wrong to ask those questions?”

“Well they don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time when they’re trying to save their homes and when they’re going out in many cases and saving other people’s homes and leaving their own homes at risk; what they don’t need is Adam Brandt and Richard Di Natale [Australian Greens’ politicians] trying to get a political point score on this, and it is disgraceful, it is disgusting, and I’ll call it out every time.”

It’s an interesting political position for the Nationals to take.  It’s not woke, inner city, latte-sippers who stand to lose their homes to fire.

It’s homeowners on the edges of cities, rural and regional Australians, including those living on the land – in the grip of a drought that grinds on and on.

Climate change has risen rapidly to become one of the most important – perhaps the pre-eminent – public health challenge.

The difficulty with climate mitigation strategy, shared by non-communicable diseases – is the need for governments to do lots of things across many portfolios (see here for the WHO’s Global strategy on health the environment, and climate change).  There is no silver bullet.

On the other hand, there are powerful economic interests that benefit from inaction.  And tragically, the issue has become politicised.

The political struggle begins at the level of language: there’s a contest about framing, about whose version of reality gains ascendency.

 

Australia and the language of fire

What can we learn from the language of fire in Australia?

On the planet Mars, two Martians, Mick and Scotty are discussing politics on earth, quietly pleased with the progress of earth towards a dry and barren planet more to their own liking.

“I think I get it”, says Scotty.  “High temperatures and strong winds cause bushfires, not climate change.”

“And don’t forget”, says Mick.  “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.

“You got it Mick!  And if you point to the lack of action on root causes you’ll be “called out” for “exploiting personal tragedy for political gain”.  But don’t worry, it’s OK to discuss the proximate causes and to show sympathy and solidarity with those who are suffering”.

“But if they cannot examine root causes, then how will they strengthen their defences against these terrible events?”

“They won’t”, says Scotty.  “That’s the point.  Ultimately these guys have ideological objections to being part of the solution”.

“Reminds me of an old saying”, says Mick.  “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”.

“It’s like I’ve always said”, said Scotty.  “No need to invade.  Just sit back.  They’re terra-forming the planet and getting it ready for us, without even being asked”.

On Friday 6 December 2019, the Board of the University of Sydney Law School voted unanimously in favour of a resolution declaring a climate change emergency.

You can read the declaration here.

Are you interested in studying health and medical law?  Click here, or here, for more information.

Those pesky Dutch are at it again

Amsterdam8

Those pesky Dutch are at it again.  Rather than slashing investments in renewable energy, or preparing for the imminent threat of global cooling, a court in the low country has ruled that the Dutch government has a legal duty to contribute to global efforts to mitigate climate disaster caused by excess greenhouse gas emissions.

The proceedings were initiated by a civil society organisation, the Urgenda Foundation. The judgment in English can be found here.

The Hague District Court ruled that although the State has wide discretion how to frame national climate policy in the Netherlands, it did not follow that the State’s discretionary power was unlimited.  Due to the global nature of the hazard, and the need for shared risk management approach, the objectives and principles in the UN Framework Convention on Climate should be considered in “determining the scope for policymaking and duty of care” (para 4.55).  The principles drawn from the Framework Convention included the protection of the climate system, “for the benefit of current and future generations, based on fairness”, the precautionary principle, and the sustainability principle.

After considering the relevant principles, the court concluded: Since it is an established fact that the current global emissions and reduction targets of the signatories to the UN Climate Change Convention are insufficient to realise the 2° target and therefore the chances of dangerous climate change should be considered as very high – and this with serious consequences for man and the environment, both in the Netherlands and abroad – the State is obliged to take measures in its own territory to prevent dangerous climate change (mitigation measures). Since it is also an established fact that without far-reaching reduction measures, the global greenhouse gas emissions will have reached a level in several years, around 2030, that realising the 2° target will have become impossible, these mitigation measures should be taken expeditiously (para 4.65).

The court concluded that the State had acted negligently by starting from a reduction target for 2020 of less than 25% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to the year 1990; accordingly, it ordered the State to take measures to limit Dutch greenhouse gas emissions in order to reach the 25% reduction target (paras. 4.93, 5.1). Although framed in terms of a duty of care, it is far from clear that Australia courts would regard the Commonwealth as owing a duty of care, nor that civil society groups could expect to have standing to press such a claim.