The richest man in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar was Marcus Licinius Crassus. Crassus made his fortune through many nefarious methods but one lowlight was his creation of the first fire brigade in Rome. Like any normal brigade his would rush to a fire but then things took a twist. Crassus would offer to buy the homes in the path of the blaze for a fraction of their value. If the homeowner refused he would order his brigade to stand idle. Eventually, most homeowners would accept the low-ball offer to get something rather than nothing. Then his trucks would sweep in save the homes, and Crassus would make a small fortune.
Many politicians over the past few months have acted like the dishonourable heirs of Crassus. They have turned up at the scene of fires not seeking to help people in need, or even to offer support and condolence. Instead, they have launched into harangues that are all about politically profiting from another’s tragedy, just like Crassus.
There is a word to describe their behaviour: crass. A word we get from the Latin root, crassus.
The likes of Adam Bandt are crass because as they seek to accuse others of killing people, they stretch the truth and paint an incomplete picture of why these fires have occurred.
It is true that we have experienced more fire weather days (that is hot, dry, windy days) over the past 40 years. That is all laid out in a definitive report by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. Their report Climate Change in Australia is the go-to official guide for the likely impacts of climate change over the next few decades.
That report includes clear data that ‘fire weather’ days have been increasing but then in that same report the CSIRO states that ‘no studies explicitly attributing the Australian increase in fire weather to climate change have been performed at this time.’
So what does the IPCC say, the apparent global oracle on all things climate?
In their latest report they conclude that there is ‘little to no information’ about any link between climate change and bushfires in Australia.
So why, if we are getting more hot days, is there not an established link? That is because weather conditions are only one factor in causing a fire. The CSIRO identify four ‘switches’ that determine fire potential. These are: ignition, fuel dryness, weather and fuel load.
On each of these, the connection to climate change is not as clear as our green friends try to make out.
Over 200 people have been charged for lighting the past summer’s devastating fires. The prime cause of the fires rests with these arsonists and the law book should be thrown at them.
On fuel dryness and the weather, it is not at all clear yet what the significant long-term trends will be. The fire weather data the CSIRO uses show a trend for forty years in a concerning direction, but this time period has been marked by a number of significant El Nino events that cause drought in eastern Australia. And, late last year there was a record reading of the Indian Ocean Dipole effect which also causes dry conditions over south-eastern Australia.
There is a lot going on with our weather that is completely separate from climate change.
Which brings us to fuel load. The fuel load that has been lying around like a ticking time bomb is not caused by climate change. It is the cause of state governments taking rights off farmers to clear their own land. And state and local governments not doing their job by clearing national parks and road verges ahead of a fire season. This is why we see so many state governments lurch to blame climate change. Climate change is a convenient bogeyman for state governments to distract attention from their own failings.
Fuel load is also where the debate on climate change and fires gets murky. While there is some evidence that climate change is leading to hotter days, that could be counteracted by the fact that, if it is drier, there will be less build up of fuel to burn. As a recent scientific paper concluded:
Effects of elevated carbon dioxide on plant growth could counteract effects of future dryness on fuels, but such effects in local ecosystems are uncertain. Thus there is potential for fire activity to either increase or decrease in the Sydney region as a consequence of climate change.
You probably won’t read that conclusion in the Sydney Morning Herald but last time I checked the Herald was not a peer-reviewed publication.
Whatever the debate about climate change, Australia always has and always will face a severe risk from bushfires. That risk may be increasing because temperatures are increasing. But that does not significantly change what we should do on the ground to prepare.
Long before climate change was a thing, Indigenous Australians conducted wide-scale burnoffs to protect against fire risk. Not even in the most surreal speculations of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu were Aboriginal peoples burning coal to generate electricity through a steam turbine. Just maybe there was some other cause of bushfires back then.
We should not panic about these latest fires. They were a great tragedy, that we all mourn. Our nation faces tragic natural disasters almost every year. In the past we have strengthened our resolve, united as a country, learned lessons and tried to protect ourselves better in the future.
The crass panic merchants should be confronted and their absurd prescriptions should be challenged. In the case of fires, and the political debate around them, the old adage is still true, we should fight fire with fire.