Fire tragedy — real action needed on climate emergency

February 14, 2009

Like all people across Australia, Socialist Alliance members have been devastated by the Victorian bushfire tragedy, the greatest disaster in peace-time Australian history.

We express our condolences to and solidarity with all who have lost family, friends and homes in this shocking holocaust, made worse by the possibility that some of these fires were deliberately lit.

We salute the efforts of Victorian Country Fire Authority workers and all volunteers who have sacrificed time, effort and security and done everything in their power to halt the ravages of the fires.

Emergency service workers battled for up to 30 hours without sleep trying to control the infernos, help the injured, and attend to the thousands left homeless.

The Victorian Labor government has called a Royal Commission into the tragedy.

If that commission listens carefully to firefighters, emergency personnel and bush communities it will learn many truths, including that emergency services are severely underfunded, fire breaks and forest access tracks should be better maintained and high-risk areas better patrolled.

The commission must also ask why, in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave, after years of drought and predictions of extreme climate events, little seems to have been done to prepare for a disaster that was waiting to happen.

However, the commission will be a waste of time if it refuses to confront the underlying cause of the unprecedented Victorian bushfires: climate change.

The reality of the climate emergency, which has been explained for years by eminent scientists, has been denied or downplayed by the mainstream politicians, or "treated" with completely inadequate policies like the Rudd government's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

The record temperatures in Melbourne and in many parts of south-eastern Australia cannot be explained simply by natural variability. The hottest 14 years on record have occurred in the last 20 years.

Far from being a "one-in-a-thousand-years event" as claimed by Victorian premier John Brumby, bushfires are predicted to become more likely as temperatures rise across eastern Australia.

Extreme weather situations that can result in bushfires have been increasing in frequency over the last 10 years. They will continue to do so as climate change worsens.

In the words of a Bureau of Meteorology colleague quoted by University of Adelaide climate scientist Professor Barry Brook: "Climate change is now becoming such a strong contributor to these hitherto unimaginable events that the language starts to change from one of 'climate change increased the chances of an event' to 'without climate change this event could not have occurred'."

The Socialist Alliance calls for greater resources for firefighting and prevention, and appropriate land management, in the wake of this tragedy.

However, the best and bravest fire-fighting in the world will be impotent before infernos like those that devastated country Victoria — unless the underlying causes are tackled.

Along with a serious effort at all levels of government to assess and mitigate the impact of global warming on our bush and country towns, Australia needs to invest billions of dollars in a "green new deal" to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

An essential part of this change requires Australia to adopt a program like Al Gore's call for 100% renewable energy by 2020.

The dreadful Victorian bushfires — like the disastrous floods in Queensland — are a dire warning that government cannot afford to ignore what the climate scientists tell them. It is dangerous and irresponsible to try to "balance" scientific views against those of the fossil fuel lobby.

The government must act now, and act decisively, to tackle climate change. Continuing to ignore scientific opinion about the climate emergency can only contribute to more such disasters.

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