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Climate action requires unity not division



The bushfires that have assailed Australia over these past weeks have reminded us of the fragility of this ancient land. The loss of life and of so many homes, properties and farms, and the loss of livestock and of native animals, have touched almost every corner of the country, just as the smoke haze has smothered so much.

Graffiti reading 'climate emergency' is seen on a bridge on 3 January 2020 in Bairnsdale, Vic. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)The natural disaster has also brought out the best in so many people. The heroic efforts of our volunteer 'firies', and of so many others, the resilience of so many small communities, and the generosity of the wider community, shine amid the pain and loss. A reminder too, of the richness of Australian identity, with Muslim and Sikh and Vietnamese groups, among others, reaching out in support of the firies and affected communities. And on the ground, our traditional religious groups, the Salvos and Vinnies, along with the Red Cross, play vital roles in enabling the volunteer services and supporting affected communities.

Politically, it has been something of a disaster for Prime Minister Morrison. The ill-advised holiday in Hawaii, gaffes on the road, breakdowns in communications etc. have plagued him. More importantly though, are the policy challenges around bushfires, drought, and climate change that need to be addressed. The Liberals and Nationals have to find a way forward that balances the interests of their supporters with serving the national good. Old arguments and ideological stands need to be re-examined. The Prime Minister needs to enable a real debate.

Naturally enough many who are passionate about climate change have seized on the fires to press their case. I think we need to be careful not to claim too much, as polarisation has done so much to hinder progress in Australia, and exaggerated positions exacerbate this division.

It seems to me that if every change in Australian policy, proposed by the Greens and others in the last ten years, had indeed been adopted, it would not have altered the present reality. The fact is that no decisions by Australia could have adverted the changing climate or have prevented the drought and these bushfires. Only worldwide action can so mitigate any human impact on climate.

Let me be clear that this does not negate the pressing moral argument for Australia to do its bit, because only by many smaller players doing their part will there be a chance for real and effective global action. But the actions of any Australian government could not have averted the perfect storm of the 2019-20 Summer. The bushfires in the main are not the result of climate action.

As a farmer's son, I am only too aware of the weather cycles in Australia (some that are decades in length). It has always been a hard land, even allowing for the compounding effect of a warming climate. Droughts have always afflicted us. This drought, in extent and intensity, has been particularly bad, if not unprecedented.


"We need to find new ways of moving forward that transcends the divisions in the Australian polity."


We are used to understanding that the cyclic El Niño effect in the Pacific leading to drought conditions in Australia. What has made it worse is that cool seas off WA's north-west (caused by the cyclic Indian Ocean Dipole) have kicked off a climatic phenomenon that has exacerbated a winter drought across central and southern Australia. Thus the frequency of risk of a significant fire danger season in southeast Australia is significantly higher following an El Niño year, particularly when combined with another major climate driver, the Indian Ocean Dipole.

Some El Niño years have been followed by very severe summer fires, including Ash Wednesday (1983) and the 2002–03 and 2006–07 seasons. This terrible bushfire season is largely shaped by two long-standing climate drivers that have overlapped in 2019.

The other factors that are relevant to the unfolding tragedy are more directly within the ambit of responsibility of government at all levels. Two major things are evident. Our voluntary fire services need to be better resourced, from communications equipment and uniforms through to vehicles and big items, like air bombers. A primary responsibility of government is security, and in Australia's case, this responsibility extends to security against drought and bushfire.

More contentious are policies around hazard reduction, of reducing the fuel available for fires. Many locals complain that government bureaucracy and pressure from the Greens and other environmentalists have hindered the making of adequate precautions for fires, especially around nature reserves. Fire is integral to the health of the Australian bush. We need to be careful here, also, of not making too extreme claims around the issue of hazard reduction — it is not the sole issue, any more than climate change.

There is a middle ground where perhaps, in the aftermath of these fires, national policy can be created around drought and water management, bush fires and land management, and a climate policy that balances effective climate action to reduce carbon emissions with the realities of energy in this continent. The fixation on the immediate cessation of coal mining, for instance, prevents real progress, but rather in this dry land there needs to be a focus on planting trees and promoting renewables, with husbanding our water with new infrastructure and land conservation. We need to find new ways of moving forward that transcends the divisions in the Australian polity.



Chris MiddletonFr Chris Middleton SJ is the rector of Xavier College in Melbourne.

Main image: Graffiti reading 'climate emergency' is seen on a bridge on 3 January 2020 in Bairnsdale, Vic. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Chris Middleton, climate change, fires



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Existing comments

This would have been a good essay up to say ten years ago. But now is no time to sitting on the rail. At 1ºC increase it is already hot enough in some places in Pakistan for newborn babies to die of heat stroke when the power fails in their hospitals; and as soon as 2035 it will be 2ºC hotter than the pre-industrial base when all children everywhere may die if their body temp cannot fall below 40ºC. There is no time left for discussion and debate as burning ALL fossil fuels MUST STOP NOW if we are to keep below a rise of 2ºC. A rise to 3ºC above the pre-industrial base by 2050 is a death sentence for most higher animals everywhere. There is a war on - not the war between people of different ideologies, but a war between life and climate collapse - and life is on the losing side.

Malthus Anderson | 08 January 2020  

Well said Father, the hate responses being generated are a sad part of the climate debate. I have spent my working life in land management in the Arid Zone and agree with CSIRO Climate Scientist Walter Jehne that the biggest change to climate is better land management to rehydrate the land. There is a great movement amongst land managers to move towards reconfigure the landscape to get better cover.

Nev Hunt | 08 January 2020  

Inevitably, we will encounter adversarial positions by the States, f'rinstance,currently each State has its own fire risk ranking; Victoria does not employ "Catastrophic" (which is an outcome, not a potential risk). The next contetemps will be rural v's city; the Commonwealth Games suspended regional hazard reduction burns for several weeks right when they could be performed...and yet here we are now, setting off fireworks in Total Fire Ban. There's a mixed message in that or perhaps Total has lost it's meaning, like Extreme. Typically, the last paragraph is a sore point for me; this concept of "aftermath" somehow being the right time to make decisions and negotiations fails in the respect that the author cannot possibly define when that will be. The relaxed, cool, clean air of "aftermath" conceived the reports, planning and spending that prescribed this fire season. For several years we've been fed the desirability of "cool burn" cultural hazard reduction, now we're told that HRBs were ineffective...but city folk will resent smoke generated by fully removing fuel. The Greens and tourism industry won't accept losses from practical land management techniques.

Ray | 08 January 2020  

We have cleared far too much land, and built over too much more. The 250 year long experiment with European agricultural practices has clearly failed. it would be madness to try to continue it. We need to find new ways of living with the land rather than off it, ways that renew, revegetate, and in some areas, rewild the landscape. Aboriginal Australia will have much to teach us here.

Doug Pollard | 08 January 2020  

The value of this piece is that it focuses on resolving the polarisation that exists in our politics. We very much need to work together, and adopting fixed positions, such as "climate emergency" on the one hand and "climate conspiracy" on the other, is divisive. We must learn to collaborate with our opponents (See "Collaborating With The Enemy" by Adam Kahane). When we talk to our opponents, we may sense, for example, the urgency for action opposing the need to manage our economy effectively, and we may learn how we can make progress, so each side gains something of what it wants, while learning what the other wants. This requires clear thinking, not gut response. We cannot cut off fossil fuel use instantly, nor can we simply stop exporting coal. The reason is that we have Demands that must, in the short term, be satisfied. So, to reduce our need the mine coal, managing demand for coal must be our primary aim. This means working with those who use our coal - China and India particularly - to reduce their demand, by being more efficient, by using alternative fuels, by substituting renewable energy sources to satisfy demand, and so on. We must include our own demand as well, especially as we have greater control. Refusing to supply is cutting off our nose, because it would raise the price of coal and so encourage other to replace our supply.

Peter Horan | 08 January 2020  

The middle road you propose Fr Middleton is essential to a rational approach to maintenance, rehabilitation, and preservation of the natural environment. Sadly, however, it is probably a remote dream when we have politicians across all parties who choose to adopt either the Abbott "climate change is crap" position in order to preserve their seats supported by the "greed is good" top end of town or other extreme views such as those of the anti environmental management left fringe of the Greens. Turnbull learnt that lesson the hard way when he undertook the middle road on the environment. To get the middle road carrying the traffic on environmental management it will mean putting the environmental illiterati typified by Abbott, all Sky news front men/women, Jones, Hadley, Smith and their ilk in parliament in a box and nailing down the lid.

john frawley | 08 January 2020  

While the message of Chris appears to make sense; lets just do this thing together, the reality is otherwise. There are too many vested interests that will not join in this fight for the planet. As someone who has met with numerous politicians over the years and watched as the Murdoch press fights against any action I have to say I feel somewhat frustrated by such arguments that assume we are on a level playing field. We are not. I have been attempting to join with this ruling elite for the past 30 years and with little, if any, success. They will fight for their privileges as hard as they can. Slavery and the vote for women, to take two examples, I suspect would still be with us if we waited on those with vested interests to come to the table. Out table is on fire and indeed this current fire crisis is a direct result of our climate breakdown.

Tom Kingston | 08 January 2020  

Thanks Chris for this fabulous article & analysis!

Mary O'Byrne | 08 January 2020  

"a focus on planting trees and promoting renewables, with husbanding our water with new infrastructure and land conservation" - totally agree. The best example of reclaiming desert is Israel, we still have a lot to learn. Obviously Australia needs to grow food, build dams, especially to drought proof regions. We also need to grow trees, especially European trees which are not easily flammable. Past reports from fires stated that eucalypts along country roads allowed fires to spread very easily. Local councils have power over local trees. Federal government can't build a dam if the State says no. There is far too much partisan politics in this country, instead of all pulling together for the benefit of all.

Jane | 08 January 2020  

Father Chris, I appreciate your points, however as a climatologist with half a century of observing weather and climate, I need to comment on some points you made in your essay. The science is now firmly established that humans are causing rapid change in the earth's climate due to the increase in greenhouse gases since the 1800's. The ENSO cycle does affect rainfall in Eastern Australia, however it is Neutral and has been throughout the current drought. The Indian Ocean Dipole has been at record level, as shown by flooding rains in East Africa and drought in Indonesia and Australia. The bushfires impacting Australia have followed an unprecedented serious fire season in the Northern Hemisphere summer, so we are following a similar pattern, indeed fire seasons are now overlapping for the first time. While hazard reduction has a role- the indigenous peoples practiced it long before European settlement, longer fire seasons and unsuitable weather has severely limited its operation .The extreme dryness of the landscape, record heat and high winds means any fire ignited by lightning or arsonists will 'crown' making ground level fuel reduction ineffective. I can assure readers that climate scientists are not radicals or 'greenies', they are simply doing their job. I was in Israel last May during an intense heatwave (49 degrees at Masada) . I noted the technological use of scare water . However the environmental consequences seem quite severe. Gavin A. O'Brien FRMetS.

Gavin O'Brien | 08 January 2020  

As a resident of an area devastated by the ongoing bushfires this season I've been thinking about the people so very adversely affected during this difficult time. What this fine article has made me realise is that our beautiful environment also has taken a severe battering and our environment is our treasure. Future national policy should focus on the protection of this treasure and that will naturally flow to protection of our lives, homes and animals. We live in a precarious space however we can do much more to protect that space. Fr. Chris you write from a gentle perspective.

Pam | 09 January 2020  

A rational political consensus would require rational politicians. The current mob behave like preschoolers and seem to be just as informed. For rational behaviour we need to find ourselves educated and wise leaders who will not spout the lies that their greedy masters demand. We need politicians who act ethically and morally and knowledgeably. Most of our pollies are Arts/Law majors. Our Prime Minister comes from marketing - we need scientists, especially geoscientists - as well as the economists and shopkeepers and financers. We need leaders who do not listen to paid spruikers but read the research coming out of universities which are properly funded (not made reliant on industry donations). Unfortunately that means we would have to replace most of the ones we have with a better quality product and I don`t believe that will happen any time soon as the current political system destroys those who would upset the status quo of greed and servitude to vested interests.

Anna | 09 January 2020  

Today the first photos of new life in the bush burn to charred stumps only 4 weeks ago on the central coast of NSW have appeared on the net, despite the fact that there has not been soaking rain since the fires destroyed the region. The God of Genesis truly does love all that he has created. Is a pity that his healing apparently falls short of the human being - or is it simply that the human being refuses to accept that healing in the light of its own perceived superior intellect and capability - the Lucifer story all over again?

john frawley | 09 January 2020  

Anna. I reckon the pre-schoolers are a damned sight more well informed than the current crop of politicians! The problem with the pollies is that they have lost the discerning innocence, idealism and awe of the natural world around them. I reckon its a pity that the country is not being governed by the purity and discernment of the pre-schoolers most of whom see things as they are and ask "why"? while others amongst them dream things that never were and ask, "why not"?

john frawley | 09 January 2020  

Chris, there are a whole list of items that you leave out. Australia is the most vulnerable of the wealthy nations to climate change, and hence should have been on the leading edge of action, to set an example that would have spurred other countries into action 20 years ago. In addition we were perhaps uniquely positioned to create an export industry of renewable resources. Instead we massively subsidize the fossil fuel industries. Your argument for our "clean" coal is like a heroin dealer arguing that his heroin is purer than that of other suppliers. I did not have a Jesuit school education. I went to a state school. I do not remember being told that Jesus looked for unity, not division. What I remember is Matthew 10:35 and the story of the carpenter's son throwing the money changers out of church, which got the priests rather annoyed and things did not end well for him. What you also neglect to mention is that Jesuit schools seemingly have been at the forefront of producing climate change deniers among our leaders. Einstein is credited with saying "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. " Maybe the Society of Jesus should seriously consider handing over its schools in privileged areas to the state and concentrate on disadvantaged areas. And focus on JRS which it does so magnificently well.

Joseph Fernandez | 10 January 2020  

Chris Middleton's curious voice will not be heard, I fear. He's flogging a dead horse in imagining that climate change deniers, once set upon their objective of placing short-term exigency over long-term commitment to the common good, will bow to the plethora of scientific evidence already on display. Granted that a mediatory tone, of itself, has much to recommend itself amidst the cacophony of sounds that defy a well-orchestrated and tuneful way out of the mess we're in, the conductor's baton that he wields works on the assumption that those who should collaborate can be persuaded to see sense through appeal to rationalism and logic, two attributes I was impeccably taught at my Jesuit school were essential to solving complex problems. There is also the question raised by his former Superior General in 'Justice for the World' that encourages those who prefer the fence to taking sides, about who benefits and who else loses in any deliberation about where virtue lies. And, finally, when the chips are down, Pedro Arrupe unequivocally states that we are to side with the abused and the downtrodden, who, in this instance, are those who suffer most egregiously from the calamitous effects of global warming.

Michael Furtado | 12 January 2020  

Jane, Israel's 'desert reclamation' is irrelevant. Israel is one third the size of Tasmania. And it isn't our 'deserts' that are burning, it's our rainforests. It's not just eucalypts that burn - think Spain, Greece, the south of France, California, Brazil, even Sweden, the UK, Ireland, Finland and Latvia - they've all had wildfires. It's not our trees that are the problem Jane, it's human-induced global climate change.

Ginger Meggs | 15 January 2020  

Thanks Chris for well considered and thoughtful article. As Peter Horan said, we must learn to respectfully debate with those who have different perspectives from our own. Labelling people 'climate skeptics', 'climate alarmists' or 'incompetent politicians' reduces the debate to schoolyard arguments and won't help us move forward in caring for creation. People that are 'labelled' will become verbally silent, but continue to undermine either sides actions in any way they can. Yes, we need action, and in a timely manner, but it needs to be strategic, involve multiple variables, well-resourced, well-implemented and evaluated, not a 'gut reaction' or singular focus on just shutting down coal mines. Land management informed by our Aboriginal peoples, new cleaner energy alternatives, better use of technology - so many ways to move forward in a positive way.

Lisa | 16 January 2020  

“The Liberals and Nationals have to find a way forward that balances the interests of their supporters with serving the national good.” I am so sick of hearing about BALANCE! FGS, the only thing that matters is the National good. Any interests of LNP supporters (or anyone else, for that matter) that are inconsistent with the national good are not entitled to any consideration at all let alone being “balanced” against the national good.

Paul Smith | 18 January 2020  

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