• Australia Is Burning Up

    The “lucky” country’s luck has, it seems, run out. The fires that have raged in New South Wales and Queensland have created a major natural catastrophe – with shocking loss of life and property, wild life such as koalas and kangaroos burnt to death, exhausted fire crews, huge economic damage and a continuing threat to the viability of human settlement in large areas of Australia. The country seemed to be, quite literally, burning up.

    The pictures shown on our television screens testify to what is surely more than an isolated episode. They took my mind back to a lunch I attended in Oxford in the early 1990s. The lunch was hosted, if my memory serves me correctly, by David Butler, the renowned psephologist, and he had for some reason invited me and three or four young, Oxford-based, Australian academics to join him.

    My abiding memory of the occasion is of the pessimism of the young Australians about the future of their country. Their primary concern was the failure of their government to recognise the threat posed by the endemic shortage of water.

    Their greatest fear was not that the country would catch fire and burn out of control, as has now happened, but the related issue of the effects of drought on Australian agriculture. They bemoaned what they saw as the government’s apathy and the absence of any remedial action.

    I recall that they made a comment which I have since heard repeated many times. “If we could only prepare for our summer heat as well as the Canadians prepare for their winter cold,” they said, “ we would be in much better shape.”

    I have often thought since that their pessimism and concern have been amply justified by events. Long before the bush fires filled our television screens, we saw grim evidence of the toll taken by drought conditions on farmers and orchardists – thin sheep searching in vain for something to eat on dry and grassless plains, and crops wilting in the heat.

    If ever we needed evidence of the impact that climate can have on human activity and that, even in an advanced country, the authorities struggle to deal with its consequences, the Australian droughts and fires should settle any doubts.

    The Australian experience is a particularly dramatic illustration of the damage risked and suffered if warning signs are ignored. And we in New Zealand should be careful to avoid feeling smug or complacent as we watch the travails of our trans-Tasman cousins.

    We are also at risk, though not perhaps so obviously and dramatically. For us, global warming will not necessarily mean direct economic loss but rather a more diffuse deterioration in our environment and ecology. It will mean less acceptable air and water quality, it will require us to adapt to new climatic conditions in respect of land usage, it will produce a range of destructive weather events, and it will threaten the survival of endangered species whose contribution to our ecological balance is hard to measure.

    Our government may not be receiving the same messages of impending disaster as were delivered to the Australian government, but we should not merely sigh with relief at our relative good fortune and then subside into inaction. We are kidding ourselves if we think that we can escape, relatively cost-free, the ravages of climate change and global warming.

    As the Australians are now discovering, possibly too late, the early evidence of damage due to global warming should not be ignored. We are – failing any positive action – quite possibly next in line. The notion that we can deal with the threat on a “business as usual” basis could prove to be a calamitous delusion.

    The news that a new political party, called Sustainable New Zealand, has been formed, with a supposed commitment to protecting the environment while at the same time (and improbably) prioritising “business as usual” policies and activities, is not encouraging. We have some hard choices to make if we are to escape the worst consequences of global warming. Deluding ourselves that we can carry on without making fundamental changes will not cut it – as we will quickly discover if we continue to bury our heads in the sand.

    Bryan Gould

    11 November 2019