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“The genie is out of the bottle, we have to turn down the heat” – A grim milestone heralds a grim future

Introduction by Croakey: As Australians raised a toast to the citizens of Victoria, where a mammoth months-long lockdown began cautious rollback on Wednesday after a much-hailed second wave response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, another grim milestone passed with little fanfare.

Monday marked a year to the day since last summer’s catastrophic and unprecedented bushfire crisis began with what was known as the Gospers Mountain fire, a 79-day, 512,000-hectare blaze that made unwelcome history as the largest forest fire ever recorded in Australia.

In a joint statement marking the anniversary, the Australian Medical Association and Doctors for the Environment Australia said the 2019-2020 summer fires had severe and ongoing health impacts, and it was recognised that “the ongoing failure to address climate change helped fuel” the disaster.

“Along with more than 30 tragic deaths directly attributable to the fires, exposure to bushfire smoke caused an estimated 417 excess deaths, 1124 hospitalisations for cardiovascular problems, and 2027 hospitalisations for respiratory problems,” said AMA President Omar Khorshid.

“The mental health impacts of the fires and months of smoke haze are still being felt around the country and are likely to be significant and protracted.

The two organisations said it was critical, as Australia looked to its COVID-19 recovery, that climate change was prioritised as a “devastating health emergency that needs to be urgently addressed”.

“Just as the Australian Government has been at its best in responding to COVID-19 when basing its strategy on science and evidence, we ask for a similar response to the real threats to the health of Australians due to climate change,” Khorshid said.

The bushfires and their intersection with both the novel coronavirus pandemic and climate action were the focus of a number of sessions at the recent Australian Public Health Conference online.

Croakey journalist Amy Coopes was there and reports below.


Cheryl McCarthy will never forget the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as the state operations command called to say that flames were just 30 minutes from the town of Bermagui in southern New South Wales, where thousands of frightened locals had gathered at the local surf club, the overlying summer skies as black as night.

It was December 31, some months into the bushfire crisis that was to engulf much of Australia’s eastern seaboard, and McCarthy had been called to open up the Bermagui SLSC at 3am for anyone seeking refuge from the flames rapidly encircling the far south coast region.

Over the ensuing hours thousands of people streamed in, bringing tales of near-escapes, losses of homes and “as time went on, stories of people losing their lives”.

“There was a big sense of grief, there was definitely shock, but the thing that struck me more than anything was the sense of calm,” McCarthy, who is director of lifesaving for the far south coast region of Surf Life Saving NSW, told the Australian Public Health Conference last week.

McCarthy vividly remembers two moments from that ill-fated morning, which was seared into national memory by images of terrified Australians sheltering on beaches and in tinnies along the south coast.

One was looking at her watch and realising that, though the skies remained pitch black, night had long since given way to day. The second was receiving that emergency call and realising that she and thousands of others were trapped, and the best they could do was to shepherd everyone into as small a physical area as possible to allow the Rural Fire Service to fall back and defend.

“I still remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach, that will never leave me,” McCarthy told conference delegates, her voice shaking. “The realisation that all of these people had come to us for help and to feel safe, and we couldn’t actually keep them safe.”


With power down and communications limited to a convoluted radio relay involving the passage of messages to and from Sydney via Bega, thousands of frightened residents huddled on the beach, awaiting the flames.

And then the wind changed.

It was a lucky escape, one that Bermagui would see three more times that summer, including January 23, when flames came within 100 metres of the town.

But McCarthy said it had been a long road over the ensuing months, with south coast communities going from determination to despair and psychological and physical reminders of the summer’s scars never far from view.

“We are starting to see, unfortunately, more suicides, we’re seeing relationship breakdowns, and things were quite tough for a lot of people,” she said. “The devastation is still easy to see, and I think it’s a constant reminder.”

It had taken six months for the federal government to start clearing land, and there had been a proliferation of services, bureaucracy and red tape, with the impact of COVID further delaying recovery efforts. People had spent the winter in caravans and tents; some were only now emerging from a state of shock to come forward for help.

“We are fragile down here in this area, we absolutely are, but we’re regrouping,” she said.


A new era of disaster threats

Also speaking in the session, former NSW Fire Commissioner Greg Mullins said the summer just gone was just a taste of what was to come, with every inquiry into the 2019-20 bushfires concluding that they were a climate change-driven event, and “we are not in a worst-case scenario yet”.

“We’ve entered a new era of bushfire and natural disaster threats for health and wellbeing, there is nothing clearer,” said Mullins. “I don’t know what it will take to get the penny to drop with people who don’t understand this yet.”

Mullins presented a raft of data showing that fire seasons were getting longer and spreading to states and territories they were not historically seen, with an overlap between Australian and international jurisdictions meaning resources including crews, trucks and aircraft would be increasingly stretched.

Adding the overlay of a pandemic further complicated things, he said, with people unable and unwilling to put themselves in a COVID hotspot and spend weeks in quarantine at either end to fight fires overseas or interstate.

“Imagine last season with the overlay of COVID, we couldn’t have moved firefighters across borders,” he said.


Some of the data shared by Mullins for NSW:

  • 21% of the state’s eastern broad leaf forest burned last summer, compared to historical annual averages of 2-3%.
  • Significantly more homes lost compared with the previous record of 225 (set in 2013): 2,476 homes and a total of more than 11,000 buildings lost including petrol stations, schools, halls and farm buildings
  • Record number of very high fire danger or above: 21 in 2019, compared with previous record of 11 days set in 2001-02 and average between 1950-2018 of just 2 days per year.
  • First-ever catastrophic fire danger rating in NSW on September 6 last year, and homes lost at a time of the year when homes had never been lost before.
  • Between 1910-2018 there had been a total of 11 days where the average temperature in Australia during the day was 40+ degrees; last December alone there were 11 such days.
  • Major fire disasters becoming more frequent: used to have a 10-13 year window between events and this was now 5-6 years.
  • 20-30 year trend of reducing rainfall, more heatwaves, and hotter heatwaves, with 1.4 degrees higher temps on average across Australia meaning far more evaporation, drier fuels and more dry thunderstorms with increasing lightning ignitions.
  • Significant increase in fire-generated (pyroconvective) storms, with only two recorded events between 1978-2001 and 78 in the two decades since, 33 of which were in the most recent fire season.

“We’ve wiped out 50% of the Barrier Reef, we have unprecedented floods and fires killing people and animals, and fire and emergency services can no longer cope with the scale and intensity of these climate-driven disasters,” he said.

“It’s an emergency, it’s a public health emergency, and we need to do something about it.”

Creating a sense of collective agency

The profound personal impact of the bushfires had been on a scale previously unseen in Australia, spanning several states over several months, but the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic meant we, as a nation, had not had the time to process it, said Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council, in a separate session at the conference.

Some had lost their homes or loved ones, been forced to flee or to fight off flames, and many millions of Australians had suffered the effects of days, weeks or months trapped indoors by smoke pollution.

“Climate change is often contextualised as something that is going to be in the future, that will unfold for our children or our grandchildren, but it’s a vast tragedy unfolding today, and it’s a public health issue,” McKenzie said.

“It is damaging the places we love and it is hurting the people that we love. It is often characterised as an environmental issue, but it’s so important that it is increasingly characterised as a human issue.”

Stressing the power of stories and importance of health professionals as messengers to share them, she said there were four simple elements to good climate communications — making the problem relevant, concrete, local, and being solutions focused – and two major pitfalls: reinforcing false debate and getting bogged down in detail.

“Trust is the currency of now, and what goes with that is the opportunity to be brave,” said McKenzie, urging health professionals to use their standing in the community to speak out, as a group.

“We are bound to be living through the most disruptive period in human history,” she said. “People are often going to feel like they have no agency, so creating a sense of collective agency is going to be critical.”

Speaking in the same session, Professor Peter Sainsbury, past president of the Public Health Association of Australia and the Climate and Health Alliance, said the world was facing “an inevitable environmental catastrophe and social collapse” and appeared to lack the will or political infrastructure to grapple with the problem.

Counselling against false hopes, Sainsbury delivered a stark assessment on the climate crisis, saying the best we could hope for at this point was to limit the damage, and radical acts would be required to achieve that goal.

“We must disrupt government and the normal functioning of society,” said Sainsbury, pointing to the Extinction Rebellion movement as a model.

“Capitalism is disrupting the Earth’s systems; climate activists need to disrupt capitalism,” he said.

You can read a piece from Sainsbury based on his conference presentation here.

The success of renewable energy was one of the ‘false hopes’ Sainsbury said was stymieing real action on the climate crisis, but Associate Professor Donna Green told the conference forum shifting focus away from the rhetorically contested space of climate change to things like energy policy or air pollution would provide a route out of the current impasse.

“To get effective climate policies implemented we need to focus on areas that have less well funded and organised denialists,” she said. “For now at least, let’s ignore climate change.”

Green, one of the founders of UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, highlighted a number of success stories, including the fact that wind and solar supplied more than 50% of Australia’s grid for extended periods of time just over a fortnight ago, and a few days later 100% of demand in South Australia was met by rooftop and utility-scale solar.

While the federal government stonewalled on renewables and climate action, Green and McKenzie said there was momentum at the state and territory level, and investment and super funds looking to invest trillions in green transition projects because renewables were now the cheapest option.

Because the timeframe was so short, with scientists warning we could well be at 1.5 degrees of warming by 2030 and staying below 2 degrees would be challenging, McKenzie said “we have to make it work within the systems we have”, even if they were the same systems responsible for catalysing the crisis.


Whither leadership

Panellists saw the COVID crisis as intersecting with climate change in a variety of ways, bringing home our inherent connectedness to and dependence on the natural world, showing what was possible with global political will, and delivering a crucial opportunity for climate action.

“The recent COVID budget shows that when we have the inclination we do have the ability to spend big,” said Green. “But in Australia, unlike the fossil fuel industry, COVID deniers do not have a legacy of political connections, so it’s less surprising that the response to COVID has been swift and significant.”

Green also saw government interest in COVID as an opportunity to get things like air pollution – and, indirectly, climate change – on the policy and research agenda. Sainsbury said it was also a link to environmental destruction that was less abstract for the public to grasp than climate change.

For McKenzie, the pandemic had shown the public, and advocates, that swift and decisive government action was possible with the right impetus, and also provided a critical circuit-breaker for climate action, with some countries making “impactful decisions in terms of the technological shifts required”.

“There is a sense that things can change pretty quickly, even though it has been in a negative way,” she said. “It changes the dynamic in the Australian political system, and we won’t see yet entirely how that unfolds.”

Speakers urged a more visionary platform from Labor and unequivocal position on the future of fossil fuels, with McKenzie saying the Australian public were looking for leadership like New Zealand has.

“The Ardern election showed us when you are brave and stand up for what you believe in, you have integrity and vision aligned with your values, it can pay off electorally,” she said.

Asked for concrete policy asks that could be taken to governments, the group said a commitment to net zero emissions in health care, with a road map to get there, would be welcome. Green also suggested getting climate change formalised as a cause of death for data purposes.

Concluded Mullins:

“The Australian government needs to join every state and territory in Australia in committing to a net zero emissions policy by 2050, and then we have to beat that target,” he said.

“The genie is out of the bottle, we have to turn down the heat.”

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