With fires still burning across New South Wales, it’s time to have a look at the role climate change might have played. Are the conditions we’re seeing natural variation, or part of a long-term trend? Certainly people in the Blue Mountains and Lithgow have never experienced anything like it.

Has bushfire risk increased due to climate change?

Research carried out in Victoria after their disastrous Black Saturday fires found that fire danger in Victoria increased by over a third after 1996, compared to 1972-1996.

South-East Australia saw a temperature change of about 0.8C when compared to temperatures before 1996. We know that it got drier after 1997 too. When this data was compared to the Forest Fire Danger Index, it showed the same pattern making it clear: fire and climate change are linked. The current level of fire danger is equivalent to the worst case projected for 2050.
Why are we so reluctant to talk about climate change?

The Environment Minister is decidedly uncomfortable with talk about the links between climate change and bushfires (and for that matter storms and floods). Yet for decades science has been warning of the increased risk of these extreme events as a result of the greenhouse gas effect on the planet.

Of course when people are hurting and in strife they’re immediate protection and recovery is the primary consideration. But inevitably even the people whose homes have been lost are asking why? And could anything have been done to avoid this? Then we all need to ask what can be done to avoid these terrible events being played out through a six month or so fire season every year. After these events we have to seriously think about how we’re going to manage them in the future.
We can’t consider severe fires as one-offs that happen every few decades. If they’re becoming a systemic part of our environment we have to consider this really seriously. What we’re learning from these fires is that the cost of carbon is huge. It all makes the idea of putting a price on the pollution that is contributing to these extreme events seem a whole lot more reasonable.

The morning after Cyclone Sandy ravaged New York their leaders Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg both pointed to climate change as the culprit. This week in Australia the former Victorian Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin has gone on a global webcast declaring the link between climate change and our increased risk of extreme fire. Esplin features in the global Climate Reality Project which is calling locally for protection of Australia’s price on carbon. You can see for yourself the Cost of Carbon in Australia at http://www.climatereality.org.au/.

But in a bid to protect the profits of some big corporate players some people don’t want us to think about the price we are paying for their carbon emissions. When is it right after a shooting massacre to talk about gun control? Inevitably we have to. There’s a smoking gun here and it’s the cost of carbon pollution. Time we talked about it.

Tracey Carpenter is President of Bathurst Community Climate Action Network