Climate crazies are torching the fire debate
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The AFR View

The AFR View

We need practical measures to mitigate bushfire risk, not a repeat of the culture wars.

Raging bushfires were not the only things out of control this week. So was the unedifying political exploitation of the fire crisis by climate war extremists. Theinflammatory rhetoric on both sidesis simply distracting attention from the practical measures needed to mitigate the potential risk that climate change will lead to more and more devastating fires.

The spark was lit by Greens MP Adam Bandt, who blamed fire deaths on government inaction in relation to the “climate emergency”. And the petrol was poured by his Greens colleague senator Jordon Steele-John, who labelled the major parties as “no better than arsonists”.

Meanwhile, when Barnaby Joyce wasn’t musing about the political leanings of fire victims, Nationals leader Michael McCormack was out there denouncing “raving inner-city lunatics” and claiming that only “woke capital city greenies” give a fig about the possible links between climate change and more extreme bushfires.

All this was typical of the playing to the base that has long marred the climate debate. The never-ending political circus around climate policy continues to make it harder for the nation to take a rational approach to managing climate risks, including the elevated danger of more frequent and ferocious infernos that should have been the focus of attention this week.

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The proposition advanced by the Greens that Australia must implement a radical and costly emergency response to the fires is not a constructive approach to climate policy, nor a way of mitigating bushfire risk.

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Effective climate solutions require effective international action. Australia needs to play its part in a global response by staying on track to meeting its Paris emissions targets. But unilaterally shutting down coal production will not bring down global temperatures. Nor would shuttering coal-intensive aluminum smelters, as aluminum for domestic use would still be sourced offshore and smelted using coal from overseas mines, with no net impact on global emissions.

However, the fires should be a wake-up call about the possible contribution of climate change to bushfire risk, especially for politicians representing the most vulnerable regional communities.

Yes, devastating fires – from Black Friday in 1939 to Ash Wednesday in 1983 and Black Saturday in 2009 – have long been part of Australia’s natural cycle, with heightened risk of fires during the hottest parts of the year. But what appears to be different now is the timing of the NSW and Queensland mega-fires, which occurred outside of the normal summertime bushfire season. It is therefore possible – as many climate and fire experts argue – that hotter, drier, and sometimes wetter weather, caused by human-induced climate change, is creating the heavy fuel loads and tinder-dry conditions that have led to the unseasonal and more intense fires witnessed this week.

A rational response to the risk of more frequent and extreme climate-linked fires is to not let the climate crazies drag us into the culture wars. Instead, the precautionary principle should apply, and the focus should be on taking practical preventive action on the ground.

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Reducing fire risk and minimising the potential scale and destructive capacities of fires requires adequate back burning (despite the smoke and impact on wildlife), and land clearing regulations that let property owners cut defensive firebreaks. And the arsonists who ignite half the bushfires must be tracked and targeted by the authorities. Emergency services must also apply the tragic lessons of Black Saturday, and be prepared in a crisis to communicate the right “leave and live” (rather than outdated “stay or go”) message to local communities facing apocalyptic firestorms.

The only bright spot in a dismal week was thedignified behaviour of the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader, who both said the middle of a fire crisis is not the right time for climate politicking. But how can a repeat circus be avoided when the next fires inevitably occur?

The climate wars would not degrade the nation’s response to the fire crisis but for the past decade of climate policy failure. Compromise and consensus behind a rational policy – a modest and transparent carbon price, and a tech-neutral approach to energy generation including nuclear power – is still possible.

If the Morrison government stepped up on climate, and Labor stepped back from the 50 per cent targets that helped it lose the election, the climate crazies would be permanently confined to the political fringes where they belong.

The Australian Financial Review’s succinct take on the principles at stake in major domestic and global stories – and what policy makers should do about them.

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