Bushfires Australia’s first national climate change disaster

Published on Tue 11 February 2020 5:27pm

We know that the harm of these catastrophic fire events will be a dark cloud cast forward for years to come, and some of the worst harm and the most painful losses will be with us forever.

Mr Wilson (5:27pm) — I’m glad to join with colleagues across the parliament in reflecting on a terrible and unprecedented summer of bushfires. The summer will be remembered as Australia’s first national climate change disaster. It has occurred on a scale never seen before. It has exacted a brutal toll. It reinforces the fact that Australia will be among the countries most acutely affected by the warming of our planet as a result of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions. Our heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones and to those who have seen their homes and farms, their pets and livestock, and their local communities ravaged by fire. We know that this summer isn’t over yet.

We know that the harm of these catastrophic fire events will be a dark cloud cast forward for years to come, and some of the worst harm and the most painful losses will be with us forever.

In Western Australia, we’ve been fortunate so far in avoiding large-scale threats to populated areas, although we’ve not been free from the impact of bushfire. WA’s unique south-west biodiversity hotspot has been scorched by repeat fires in areas like the Stirling Range National Park and the Fitzgerald Biosphere. Three fires since 2015 in the Cape Arid National Park have put the western ground parrot at severe risk. In my own electorate of Fremantle, there have been several fires in urban bush reserves. On 3 January, a fire that started in Atwell jumped the Kwinana Freeway, causing a halt to both traffic and train services and threatening homes. On the same day, a fire in Spearwood was brought under control before it could harm local neighbourhoods or spread into the precious Manning Park reserve. In December, there was a fire that started overnight in Sir Frederick Samson Park, an important Bush Forever reserve in the middle of a suburban community. But, for most of the summer, we’ve watched the events on the eastern seaboard with concern and heartache for our fellow Australians, for friends and family and for the livestock and native fauna, especially endangered species and threatened ecosystems.

I want to acknowledge the more than 300 men and women from WA, including members of the Jandakot and South Coogee fire brigades in my electorate, who flew east to be part of the incredible effort by professional and volunteer firefighters to battle the fires and save lives. I want to acknowledge the contribution that many Western Australians have made through donations to the relief and recovery effort. I say to them: if you haven’t done so already, can you please make a donation in the time to come. Thanks should go to the City of Cockburn, which has donated $15,000 to fire affected communities in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, and to the City of Fremantle, which donated $10,000 to the Freo Fire Fund, established through the wonderful Fremantle Foundation after a suggestion by long-time and irrepressible community activist Robby Lang.

On the Friday before last, I attended the first of two Fire Aid concerts at the Fremantle Arts Centre, organised by Phil Stevens, featuring The Waifs, John Butler, San Cisco, Stella Donnelly and Carla Geneve. Every input to the event was provided free so that all ticket proceeds could go where they’re needed. That totalled more than $650,000—as the concert poster said, ‘From WA, with love.’

Around the world, people have watched the fires in Australia with heartfelt sympathy and with sober recognition of what climate change means for us all. For a few days in the middle of January, I had the privilege of visiting Bangladesh with a number of parliamentary colleagues thanks to Save the Children’s Regional Leadership Initiative. The focus of the trip was Australia’s development assistance projects aimed at saving lives, reducing poverty and increasing education and gender equality, especially in ultrapoor communities where people survive on less than US$1 a day and generally on fewer than two meals a day.

As we grapple with the brewing impacts of climate change in Australia, it’s sobering to consider what faces a nation like Bangladesh. It’s especially sobering to consider the one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who exist in makeshift camps in one of the most cyclone-prone areas on the planet. But, notwithstanding the gravity of the challenges they face, the very first thing the members of the Bangladesh parliament wanted to do was to express condolence for the bushfires in Australia. They also expressed hope that the international community would get serious about reducing carbon emissions, and they made the point that there are no climate change deniers in Bangladesh.

In terms of the environmental impact of these fires, let’s not underestimate the extraordinary harm that’s been done to the continent whose stewardship is our responsibility. Before we take stock of what’s just occurred, we should note that we are already in the grip of an acute biodiversity crisis. It’s no exaggeration to describe it as an extinction crisis.

Much has been made of the letter to the Prime Minister from the former fire chiefs. But there was another letter to the Prime Minister, from 248 scientists, in October last year, which in respect of the extinction crisis said:

Our current laws are failing because they are too weak, have inadequate review and approval processes, and are not overseen by an effective compliance regime.

To date, what we have heard from the government, including from the Minister for the Environment, is that the focus should be on slashing so-called green tape. That’s code—and it’s not a very complicated code—for weakening environmental protections. How perverse would it be if our response to the devastation of this season’s bushfires would be to further deplete our already fragile biodiversity? We need an environment policy with a clear priority of steeply improving environmental outcomes, not further bending our landscape and its creatures into profit-yielding stress positions.

When this fire season is over, we must consider the inadequacy of our environmental protection framework in addition to the inadequate preparations for community safety. As we turn our attention to the process of recovery and see homes and communities rebuilt and find solace in landscapes that shift slowly from black to green, let’s not be blind to the permanent harm that has occurred. In some cases, areas that have been forests will no longer be forests. The ecology will be fundamentally changed. What was there before will not grow back. It’s likely that some endangered species have already been pushed to extinction.

I said at the outset that this summer will be remembered as Australia’s first national climate change disaster. But we shouldn’t regard it as a wake-up call, because that call has been made in various forms for years. The only question is: when are we going to answer that repeated and urgent call to get serious about climate change? When, as a developed, adaptable, outward-looking and ingenious nation that also happens to be one of the highest carbon emitters on the planet on a per capita basis, are we going to get our act together? And when, for the sake of our citizens’ safety and the sake of our health, our environment and our economy, are we going to heed and follow the science, address the harm that is already upon us and stop that harm getting much worse by taking action in Australia and by being a concerted, leading, wholehearted participant in global action?

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