No foreign army is about to invade our shores, no dangerous epidemic is on our borders, and no internal political crisis is wracking our country but Australians everywhere know they are facing a problem which is threatening our long-term quality of life and well-being: a future in which heatwaves, other extreme climatic events and fearsome, widespread bushfire periods which have the power to destroy vast swathes of forests, farmland and settled areas become a common feature of yearly life.
The seriousness of the current period of devastating, ‘Catastrophic-level’ bushfires in most states has been highlighted by the Federal Government’s decision to not only involve regular units of the army, navy and air force in the provision of support for state-operated emergency services but, on Saturday, we learned that some 3,000 military reservists were being called up to aid in the huge and complex business of ensuring the safety and protection of lives and properties in the staggeringly large areas of Australia affected by Extreme and Catastrophic-level fire conditions.
The Morrison Government has decided unilaterally to treat the bushfire crisis as a national emergency.
This decision has come after broad criticism from many quarters about the apparent lack of action on the part of our national leadership to an obviously deteriorating fire emergency across the country.
The Prime Minister’s decision to embark on a family holiday in Hawaii late last year marked the start of a lasting surge of criticism of the Prime Minister and his government.
Despite his apparent pre-Christmas lack of political awareness Mr Morrison, however, is not to blame for Australia’s current situation.
The fires are a consequence of changing climatic conditions in Australia.
Those conditions are a reflection of global trends which have been worrying climate scientists and communities for many years.
Australia’s contributions to the apparent world-wide warming trend are relatively small when compared to the contribution of major economies such as the United States, India and China but it has been obvious for some years that the geography and climate history of Australia has made this country an unwilling ‘canary in the mine’ when it comes to the effects of the one degree Celsius increase in global temperature over the past century.
Australia has, for many thousands of years, had a climate in which ‘droughts and flooding rains’ figured prominently.
We have moved, in recent time, to a pattern of warmer and drier years.
A 2018 study by the University of Melbourne reported that the incidence of droughts over the past 100 years are “likely without precedent over the past 400 years.”
The record-breaking temperatures experienced since the beginning of the current summer are adjudged to be the hottest on record.
The current ‘unprecedented’ bushfire season across Australia has been reported to have already contributed as much as 50 per cent of the nation’s normal CO2 emissions to the atmosphere.
What to do?
The decision by the Federal Government to take on a leadership role in response to handling the complex issue of dealing with catastrophic fires is a start.
What will be needed though is the development of a new national strategy for such events in the decades ahead.
Issues involved include environment and forest management, better protection measure for native flora and fauna, infrastructure matters such as access, security of communications, health, community safety and support, building standards, and improved public education and awareness – just some of the matters which need attention.
As things stand, the nation will still face problems of rebuilding infrastructure, supporting the rebuilding of homes, businesses and communities, tackling environmental consequences of the fires such as species loss and erosion, and assisting the farm sector.
The wider issue: that of climate change and the necessary responses by our nation and the world at large must also receive more attention; certainly more than that given by some national politicians to date.
This newspaper has previously called on the national government to develop and present to Australians a comprehensive plan for this country to have a strategy to progress to a future of lower or no carbon-dependency of energy generation.
While such a transition naturally cannot happen overnight the experience of Britain and other European nations show that it is possible for non-carbon-based energy source to be replaced by sustainable energy sources.
Natural gas is a major component of Britain’s energy mix, now at 46 per cent.
The political mood – even on the conservative side of politics – in Britain generally favours a transition to renewable and non-carbon energy sources.
While such an ultimate transition in Australia is also desirable we also need to acknowledge that the climatic circumstances we are experiencing this summer could well be a taste of our future.
Eminent scientists believe that the planet still has time to avoid the worst effects of a significant climate change if nations co-operate – but, in the meantime the label ‘Catastrophic’ level fire alert, first introduced across Australia in 2009, is probably with us for the long haul.