Comment: Let's confront the reality of climate change

Our fire seasons are starting earlier, lasting longer and have more days of extreme fire weather. We can no longer ignore the effects of climate change, writes Bruce Esplin.

New South Wales Bushfires

Our fire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer with more days of extreme fire weather, says Bruce Esplin (AAP)

When it comes to climate change there are increasing signs the future has already arrived.

As Victorian Emergency Services Commissioner for 10 years, and a senior emergency management officer for over 20 years, I am increasingly concerned about what I’ve seen.

Emergency Services workers are at the front line of climate change impacts. To me, climate change is not a political issue. It’s a health and safety issue - for the emergency services and for the whole community.

In Australia we used to have what seemed to be, on average, a 7 to 10 year cycle for extreme events. Now we are seeing extreme events so much more frequently. Now it’s every two to three years. Our fire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer with more days of extreme fire weather.

When you consider what has happened all around Australia in the last decade it’s quite terrifying. It’s not just Australia, though.

I don’t doubt that the reporting of natural disasters is more comprehensive, or that more and more people are living closer to danger - for example the urban spread/urban-rural interface issue in relation to bushfire risk. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that our climate is changing and that is already having an impact on the frequency and the scale of events.

I’m not somebody who would argue that any single event is a direct result of climate change. But I think the pattern, if you’re prepared to look objectively, is quite scary.

One of the things that worries me about Australians is our tendency to stick our head in the sand and think ‘it’s not going to happen to me’ or ‘it’s a problem for a future generation’.

In my mind and surely in the scientists’ minds, we don’t have that luxury.

If we don’t do something now, both the problem and the consequences on future generations will be just too horrific to think about.

There are many people I’ve met more than once around regional Victoria, generally farming people, who have a connection to the land built up over generations.

Now some of those same people will probably deny human caused climate change. But these same people have said to me time and again that they’ve witnessed fire behaviour that they have personally never experienced before. And they’ve never heard their fathers, or their grandfathers or their great grandfathers talk about it either. These are stories told to me by people I respect greatly for their local knowledge, their connection and understanding of the land and their knowledge of fire.
Black Saturday in Victoria was catastrophic - it was beyond belief. Now we are seeing fires on a horrific scale in NSW. The impact of such fires on a community lasts for years, if not decades.

In the weeks before Black Saturday, Victoria experienced a record heatwave. Three days in a row of unprecedented temperatures - day and night. To me, the impact of that three day period seems to have been lost in the horror of the Black Saturday fires and goes largely unremarked upon.

The energy grid was effected with infrastructure damage caused by the heat, public transport was disrupted with rail track buckling on a regular basis, and an already stressed public health system was required to deal with a further significant surge in patient load. The emergency services were also dealing a massive surge in calls for assistance.

The distressing reality is that twice as many people passed away during that heat wave died on Black Saturday.
An even greater number of people died in a recent heatwave in Europe - these events are not confined to Australia.
Could this be an even more pressing illustration of what climate change might mean?

The impact on the vulnerable in our community - the elderly and the infirm - is going to be far greater and that’s extremely concerning.

Unfortunately, by refusing to confront this reality, we’re actually losing the opportunity to do something because I think there are many, many ways for the community to help each other - not just help people in the disaster zones - to really build community resilience.

Bruce Esplin

As a simple example, if you live in a house with air conditioning and you’ve got an elderly neighbour without air conditioning and you’re going through a heat wave there’s no reason why you can’t invite them in and cool them down and just generally make sure they’re ok.

A recent report from the Productivity Commission has found a significant imbalance in expenditure on response, recovery and rebuilding after disasters on the one hand, and investment in prevention, planning and mitigation of risk on the other.

We are already seeing fires that can’t be contained or extinguished despite the best efforts of our amazing emergency services - only nature can extinguish these so called mega fires.

If we are to live with this enhanced fire risk without great loss of life, we will need to rebalance our investment in emergency management to ensure a greater proportion is applied to prevention and mitigation.

Critical strategies such as land management policies - on both public and private land, planning controls, building standards and  better use of emerging technology to name just a few- need to be funded on a consistent ‘all year-every year’ basis. Not just in the lead up to a predicted ‘bad fire season’, or even worse, in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Fuel reduction burning works by both its strategic application across the landscape, and its cumulative effect over time. What is or can be done in any one year will have little effect.

There is also a good economic argument here. I am convinced that greater investment in mitigation and prevention will result in reduced expenditure in the emergency response to natural disasters and the recovery and rebuilding devastated communities. Governments and communities will get a return on their investment!

Work commissioned by the Australian Business Roundtable - ‘Building our Nation’s Resilience to Natural Disasters’ - supports this view. The report found  that the cost of natural disasters in Australian will rise from $6.3B a year to around $23B per year in 2050. The report also found that spending approximately $250M per year on a more coordinated approach targeting high risk areas with cost effective solutions could halve the cost of disasters by 2050.

In closing, I would argue that we have to acknowledge the reality of a changing climate before we can start putting in place the sort of behaviours that are going to give us the opportunity to adapt to that change.

I tend to think that it’s no longer a case of trying to reverse climate change it’s now a case of trying to adapt to what has already happened.

worked in senior emergency management for 20 years and was the Victorian Emergency Services Commissioner for 10 years until 2010. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2013 for his work in emergency management.

7 min read
Published 25 October 2013 at 10:24am