As the prime minister refuses to discuss the science linking climate change and the bushfires burning in eastern Australia, former Howard adviser Geoff Cousins compares the political strategy to the tactics of the American gun lobby. With photography by Stephen Dupont. By Mike Seccombe.

Actually, it is climate change

Firefighters from the ACT on watch and act near Possum Brush, just south of Taree, NSW, on Tuesday.
Firefighters from the ACT on watch and act near Possum Brush, just south of Taree, NSW, on Tuesday.
Credit: Stephen Dupont for The Saturday Paper

The quote you are about to read did not come from Scott Morrison, although our prime minister repeatedly invoked the same sentiments this week, every time someone asked him about the role of climate change in eastern Australia’s unprecedented bushfires.

“This sort of response isn’t helpful. Families are mourning. Offer a prayer and temper your desire for politics …”

Nor is this next quote from New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who deemed it “inappropriate” to talk about the causes of climate change while her state was burning:

“This is a time for people to grieve, to mourn, and to heal. This is not a time for political discussions or public policy debates.”

Those words aren’t attributable to Barnaby Joyce or Michael McCormack, or John Barilaro, or any of the other advocates of a bigger Australian fossil fuel industry. Nor was it Joel Fitzgibbon, or other “coalies” on the Labor side.

Actually, the quotes come from the United States’ National Rifle Association. The first was in response to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, in which nearly 60 people were killed and more than 400 were injured. The second came after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which 32 died and 17 were wounded.

Whenever there is a gun atrocity in the US, the first response of the NRA and its political acolytes is to say words to the effect of “now is not the time to talk about it”. By expressing concern for the victims and the bereaved, and by implying insensitivity on the part of those who would debate the underlying causes of the tragedy, they seek to avoid scrutiny of their culpability. The expectation is that, given a little time, the populace and media cycle will move on.

Geoff Cousins has seen the tactic deployed before in this country. Some 23 years ago, the corporate heavyweight accepted a job as an adviser to the then recently elected prime minister, John Howard, just before Howard was called to respond to Australia’s worst act of domestic terrorism, in which 35 people were killed and at least 18 wounded at Port Arthur.

Cousins was privy to the government’s internal division about how to respond to Martin Bryant’s murderous rampage. He was there when Howard faced down those in his own party, and particularly those in the National Party, who argued it was the wrong time to talk about tighter gun laws, so soon after the event.

“Howard said, ‘Wrong, this is precisely the time to talk about gun control. And more than that it’s precisely the time to do something about it.’ And he did,” Cousins says.

“And now we have a prime minister who is doing precisely the opposite.”

When The Saturday Paper spoke to Cousins on Wednesday this week, he had just driven hundreds of kilometres through the charred and smoky countryside to Sydney from his own tinder-dry but mercifully unburnt property in northern NSW. He recalled one visual memory that remains particularly clear in his mind after so many years.

“As John Howard walked out of the memorial service for the victims, he saw one of the fathers whose son had died, and immediately went and embraced him.”

It was not staged, but the media caught the powerful moment. This week, there was a similar picture of Morrison hugging a man whose home had been lost to the fires.

A similar image, but an entirely different subtext, Cousins says. Howard’s spontaneous gesture conveyed not only sympathy but also a promise of change that might prevent future tragedies.

“It was,” Cousins says, “an absolute sign that action would be taken.” By contrast, Morrison’s embrace offered “some sort of hollow comfort, without any action”.

“Morrison and all the others – the deputy prime minister, all the cabinet ministers who refuse to talk about it – are hollow men,” Cousins says. “And their gestures are hollow gestures.”

Cousins says the response of government this week to those who talked about fossil fuel and climate change was straight out of the NRA playbook.

Fires around the Hillville area west of Taree, NSW, on Tuesday. (Credit: Stephen Dupont for The Saturday Paper)

But here’s the thing: the prime minister, who styles himself as the champion of quiet Australians, failed to make Australians quiet. People – not just the usual advocates of climate action, but also rural mayors, firefighters and fire victims – continued to demand the government acknowledge the causes of the disaster and commit to action.

Take Fiona Lee, for example. Until last Friday she lived with her partner and their three-year-old daughter in a house they built themselves at Warrawillah, near Bobin, south-west of Port Macquarie, on the NSW mid north coast.

About 1pm that day, a fire that had been burning in nearby bush for about two weeks turned towards their property. They made the decision to evacuate. A few hours later, their house was engulfed by flames.

The now homeless family stayed one night with friends in nearby Wingham, but when that little town also came under fire threat they moved on to Newcastle. On Tuesday, they hit the road again, to Sydney, where they joined a protest outside state parliament. Among the several hundred gathered there were a few other people directly affected, and the crowd heard messages of support from other fire victims who couldn’t be there in person. Lee brought with her a small metal drum. In it were ashes of her home.

“We felt compelled to go down there and call on politicians to face the truth,” she told The Saturday Paper.

“The government has no right to tell us not to talk about what’s causing this. I feel that the majority of people that have been affected by this, and I’ve been talking to them, believe that now is precisely the right time to talk about it. Actually, decades ago was precisely the right time to talk about it and a lot of people are furious, myself included, that they have ignored the warnings.”

Apart from the threshold issue of fossil fuels’ contribution to climate change, she says, there are questions about government’s preparedness to deal with the megafires caused by global heating.

“On the basis of firsthand experience on the ground, it doesn’t seem to me that the RFS [Rural Fire Service] had enough resources,” she says. “In our local area there was just a handful of really dedicated guys protecting 30 or more properties. There was no sign of helicopters or other aircraft.”

Lee accepts they had to prioritise areas of higher population, but thinks they should be able to do both.

Back in April, more than 20 former fire chiefs from all states and territories issued a joint statement making the same points: that climate change was lengthening Australia’s fire season and making fires more intense. They called for increased resources for forestry management, national parks, and urban and rural fire services. And they noted that many governments were instead cutting the budgets for these services. They were ignored.

Another point the fire chiefs emphasised was that fires are affecting areas that have never burned before.

Mark Graham, an ecologist, can attest to that.

“There are areas now burning at an intensity and in a season at which they never have before,” he says.

“And there are communities, vegetation communities such as rainforest communities, which have ancient lineages, where fire has simply never occurred, moist refuges in the landscape since before the break-up of Gondwana, back 60, 80, 100 million years.”

When his father, also an ardent environmentalist, died five years ago, Graham decided the best way to spend his inheritance was to buy and protect some of this land. He acquired 400 hectares on the Dorrigo plateau, “recognised as one of the greatest refuges of ancient biodiversity on the planet”.

He had a little cabin on it and at night he could shine a spotlight on a big old tree, in which lived a family of greater gliders, the world’s largest gliding marsupial, and a species listed as nationally vulnerable.

“The tree is a pile of ashes on the ground now,” he says. “It burned in the first week of spring, and that fire is still burning, 10 weeks later.”

Even if the animals survived the fire, they will probably starve. Graham says the blaze took out 80 per cent of the vegetation on his property, along with the cabin, part of a cumulative total approaching 400,000 hectares.

“We’re basically dealing with walls of fire,” he says, “burning through landscapes that are not fire-adapted, and which have been refuges going back into deep, deep time. The consequences for the biodiversity will be dire.”

Fires around the Hillville area west of Taree, NSW, on Tuesday. (Credit: Stephen Dupont for The Saturday Paper)

There would be ongoing human consequences, too. Three major water sources beginning in the fire-affected area – the Bellinger, Orara and Nymboida Rivers – provide water for about 160,000 residents on the coast nearby. Those rivers now are laden with ash and sediment.

That’s what an ecologist says, but what does the government say?

On Monday the federal leader of the Nationals, Michael McCormack, went on ABC Radio’s RN Breakfast to talk about how people shouldn’t be talking about climate change.

He said Australia had always burned.

The thing that set McCormack off was a media release issued last Saturday by Greens MP Adam Bandt, in which Bandt noted that the government had ignored the warning of the fire chiefs about the catastrophic threat. He also pointed out that Australia’s coal industry was a major contributor to global heating, and that “apocalyptic scenes like these will not only continue but get worse in the years to come” unless Australia and the world stopped using fossil fuels.

All this was factually accurate and inarguable on the science. The tendentious bit was where he suggested Scott Morrison, through his support for the fossil fuel industry, had “contributed to making it more likely that these kinds of tragedies will occur”.

Bandt called on the prime minister to “apologise to the Australian people for putting their towns and lives at risk”.

McCormack was livid. What people needed now, he said, was real practical assistance, not “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies”.

When program host Hamish Macdonald repeatedly pointed out that concerns about climate change and demands for greater government action were not coming from only the urban Greens, but also from rural mayors, former and current firefighters, and fire victims themselves, the deputy prime minister dodged. He even suggested the 23 former fire chiefs might be a “front group” for the Greens.

Then he abruptly shifted his argument, moving to step two of the NRA playbook: shift the blame.

“We need our state forests and our parks [personnel] to be able to go in and clean up some of the fuel load,” he said. “What we want to see is not those areas locked up for just ecotourism …”

Later that day, on 2GB Radio, shock jock Ray Hadley and McCormack’s state counterpart, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, escalated the blame-shifting. The real culprits, they argued, were “lefties” and “greenies” who opposed hazard reduction burning.

“When are we going to have the discussion, after this is all over, about the fervent opposition from the Greens to hazard reduction burns?” Hadley said.

Barilaro asked a similar question: “While we lock up national parks and allow that fuel load on the forest floor to grow, why are we surprised when these fires hit they are at the intensity that they are at?”

They could not have been more wrong. For a start, just 9 per cent of NSW is “locked up”, the second-lowest proportion in Australia, after Queensland’s 8 per cent. Second, if those parks are less well tended than they should be, it is substantially because the Berejiklian government cut a total of $121 million from the parks budget for 2016-17 and 2017-18, and a further $80 million in its most recent budget.

More importantly, though, neither the Greens nor any of Australia’s main conservation groups express “fervent opposition” to hazard reduction. They accept that many of Australia’s ecosystems are fire-adapted and need occasional burning to maintain biodiversity.

And while they apply certain caveats – about fire intensity, which ecosystems should and should not be burned et cetera – their position on fire, like their position on climate change, reflects the best science. To suggest otherwise is to be guilty of either ignorance or deliberate untruth.

Many experts – among them Professor Ross Bradstock, director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong, and former NSW fire and rescue commissioner Greg Mullins – are signatories to the statement about climate change and fire risk that the government ignored.

“Blaming ‘greenies’ for stopping these important measures is a familiar, populist, but basically untrue claim,” Mullins says.

Hazard reduction burning – that is, low-intensity burning of the combustible litter on the ground – can be very effective in the right place at the right time, says Brendan Mackey, director of the Climate Change Response Program at Griffith University.

The major impediment to such burns, he says, has actually been climate change itself. As the fire season lengthens and south-east Australia dries out, the opportunity for using controllable, low-intensity fire to burn off the litter shrinks.

And there are some forest types – wet sclerophyll and rainforest – that are not amenable to hazard reduction. They are not fire-adapted and, furthermore, most of the time they are too moist to ignite. When they are dry enough to burn, it is too dangerous to burn them.

For the type of fires we are seeing at the moment, Mackey says, hazard reduction burning would make little difference.

“When you have catastrophic fire weather, you have catastrophic fire irrespective of the fuel load. It doesn’t matter if you have burned off the litter, because a catastrophic fire goes through the canopy and showers embers kilometres ahead of the fire front.”

We now are faced, he says, with a “different type of fire”. The fire hazard index, a formulation from the 1970s based on temperature, dryness, fuel load and wind, had begun to register values greater than the maximum on the scale. Hence the new category of “catastrophic” – used for the first time in Sydney this week.

“That’s what has happened with 1 degree of climate warming: we’re getting higher fire hazard ratings, earlier and longer fire seasons, and we’re getting them in areas of Australia where we have never had them before,” Mackey says.

“If the world fails to mitigate greenhouse emissions, quickly, by 2040 we will get 1.5 degrees of global warming … By the end of this century, three to five. You can only imagine the consequences.”

This week those consequences became a little easier to imagine, and that is the problem for Australia’s major political parties, neither of which betrays any intention to seriously address the climate crisis.

As the week wore on, the efforts by right-wing politicians and their media surrogates to distract and lay off blame grew more ridiculous. Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, a climate change denier of long standing, told Sky News that changes to the sun’s magnetic field could be the cause of the fires. He also, unaccountably, speculated that two people who died in the fires were probably Greens voters.

Graham Lloyd, the environment editor for The Australian, managed to find an elderly hippie from Nimbin – Michael Balderstone, who has stood on multiple occasions for the Help End Marijuana Prohibition Party – who blamed “greenies” for the fires on the grounds that he had been prevented from gathering firewood in national parks.

This was how desperate some in Australia – in the press and in politics – were to avoid talking about the reality of climate change. That reality is that Australia will not – on the evidence supplied by the government’s own bureaucrats – make the necessary reductions to our domestic emissions to meet our Paris carbon reduction targets. Despite this, both major parties remain committed to mining ever more fossil fuels.

Morrison said as much two weeks ago, to a meeting of coal interests in Queensland. His government is working on new laws to punish people who lobby against investment in fossil fuel projects. More effort is being directed here than to climate mitigation.

In the next couple of weeks, the NSW Coalition government hopes to pass new legislation specifically prohibiting its Independent Planning Commission and Land and Environment Court from considering greenhouse gas emissions when assessing proposals for new export coalmines. The Queensland Labor government recently fast-tracked approvals for the Adani megamine.

Fires around the Hillville area west of Taree, NSW, on Tuesday. (Credit: Stephen Dupont for The Saturday Paper)

The burning of fossil fuels already causes millions of deaths each year, according to the World Health Organisation, through air pollution. The organisation calculated that, from 2030 to 2050, there would be 250,000 additional deaths a year linked to global heating, as a result of heat stress, malnutrition and the spread of disease.

Two weeks ago, air pollution in Delhi rose to more than 20 times the WHO limit of safety. Breathing the air was equivalent to smoking 40 to 50 cigarettes a day.

This past northern summer saw hundreds of wildfires burning across millions of hectares of the Arctic, from Alaska to Russia to Scandinavia and Greenland. In California last year, fires raged across more than 750,000 hectares. Some 100 people died and the cost in insurance claims alone was more than $US12 billion. This year, another 100,000 hectares burned.

Spain and Greece were ravaged by deadly fires driven by dry winds and record temperatures this northern summer. Across the countries of the European Union, 1600 fires were recorded to mid-August – more than three times the long-term yearly average.

The litany of disaster goes on and on. The science is unequivocal; the changes are happening even faster than it predicted.

According to the most recent Climate of the Nation survey, released by The Australia Institute in September, 76 per cent of Australians believed climate change is causing more bushfires. No doubt recent events have increased that number.

In the US, a similar percentage of people tell pollsters they support tighter restrictions on guns. Yet the NRA remains powerful. Nothing changes.

The fossil fuel lobby in this country, like the gun lobby there, retains its hold on politics with its playbook and its chequebook. And it will keep on winning until the people muster the political will to back their beliefs.

Maybe this week shows that is beginning to happen.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 16, 2019 as "Actually, it is climate change".

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