Urgent climate action needed now

February 14, 2009

Nothing like the inferno that swept across Victoria last weekend has ever occurred in Australia before.

The deadly, unparalleled blaze was just one terrible outcome of the record-breaking heatwave that gripped the south-east of Australia for over a week. The heatwave also claimed an unprecedented number of lives due to heat-stress.

While thousands of people in Victoria struggled to cope with the sheer scale of their tragedy, 60% of Queensland was affected by freak floods.

Another extreme weather event — more lives lost.

Given the truly horrible outcomes, and given the responsibility of the government to take any and all necessary steps to prevent the future loss of life, how to explain the giant elephant in the room?

Why won't Kevin Rudd's government bear mention of climate change as a factor?

Why the mainstream media's emphasis on suspected arsonists? Four hundred separate fires raged through Victoria on February 8. Arson, as terrible a crime as it is, is the suspected cause of a very small proportion of these.

How can the terrible forecasts of climate scientists become reality without provoking a serious re-examination of our climate change policy from politicians?

Clive Hamilton, author of Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, emphasised that climate scientists have long predicted more frequent and extreme fires will hit Australia, in a February 9 article for Crikey.com. "Over the last ten days we have seen the future", he said.

"The question is: will we face up to it or pretend they are one-off events?"

Our politicians are not facing up to it. Quite the opposite. The ALP and Coalition politicians are loath to raise the issue of climate change because once they do, more people are likely to ask them why they are doing so little about it.

In the coming weeks, the corporate media and the Rudd government will try to downplay the obvious link between global warming and bushfires. But in doing so they will be going beyond mere irresponsibility. They will be playing political games with people's lives.

No single extreme weather event can be deemed proof of climate change. But the evidence is clear that Australia, and the rest of the world, has been warming at a rapid pace, which will increasingly provoke unpredictable changes to our weather.

The truth is that the longer the world's politicians refuse to take the steps necessary to halt climate change, the more people will be at risk.

Climate writer David Spratt has pointed out that we are now in a race between political tipping points and climate tipping points.

A great change towards a sustainable economy and society is required if vast human misery is to be avoided. The corporate vested interests that benefit most from the status quo must be confronted. The new environmental movement mobilising and agitating throughout Australia gives hope that a political alternative can be built in time.

In contrast to the government's inaction on climate change, the growing grassroots environment movement has a plan for action — an emergency plan that can match the scale of the climate emergency. The recent Climate Action Summit in Canberra discussed plans for the immediate period ahead and agreed on the following three overarching demands:

• Prevent Rudd's dangerously inadequate Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme from becoming law;

• 100% renewable energy in Australia within 10 years; and

• set a long-term atmospheric CO2 target of 300 parts per million (ppm), in line with the most recent and reputable science. The current level is approximately 380 ppm.

We have proof that — in the face of crisis — human solidarity and cooperation can overcome amazing hardship. The scale of devastation wrought by the fires has been equaled only by the scale of the response by ordinary people volunteering their time, donating their money, space in their homes and — in some cases — the clothes off their own back.

Within days, more than $80 million worth of donations had been raised. The heroic effort of the firefighters — many of whom are volunteers — becomes even more inspiring when we learn that some of them have lost their own houses, only to go straight out to save the homes of others.

While mainstream commentators have been quick to pay tribute to the heroic actions of the firefighters, not enough attention has been given to the United Firefighters Union call for action to be taken on climate change — which it has identified as the main cause of the unprecedented fires.

GLW supports the call from those at the forefront of fighting fires who are urging governments to act urgently on climate change.

We don't have time to sit back and hope the government will act. The climate emergency demands a whole-of-economy, whole-of-society mobilisation as soon as possible.

The amazing community response we have seen to the bushfire tragedy is just the sort of determined action needed to deal with the climate emergency. Just as people have insisted on doing their bit in this tragedy, an unstoppable movement of people power, insisting on nothing less than a safe climate future, could force the changes needed.

The strength, selflessness and determination displayed in the recent tragedy are the very traits humanity can and must draw on to confront the unavoidable challenges that lie ahead and prevent more climate catastrophes from occurring.

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