Quoted from Sydney Morning Herald, February 10, 2009
'Scientists warned us this was going to happen'
If seeing is believing, then it's time to accept climate change, writes Freya Mathews.
IT IS only a couple of years since scientists first told us we could expect a new order of fires in south-eastern Australia, fires of such ferocity they would engulf the towns in their path.
[Death toll: 181 (so far, but still rising). Houses lost: ~750 so far, but towns still under threat. Area burnt: ~400,000 ha SO FAR. RNC]
And here they are. The fires of Saturday were not "once in 1000 years" or even "once in 100 years" events, as our political leaders keep repeating. They were the face of climate change.
They were the result of the new conditions that climate change has caused: higher temperatures, giving us hotter days, combined with lower rainfall, giving us a drier landscape. Let's stop using the word "drought", with its implication that dry weather is the exception. The desiccation of the landscape here is the new reality. It is now our climate.
People are comparing last Saturday to Ash Wednesday and Black Friday. But this misses the point. We should be comparing these fires to the vast and devastating fires of 2002-03, which swept through 2 million hectares of forest in the south-east and raged uncontrollably for weeks. They have been quickly forgotten because, being mainly in parks, they did not involve a large loss of human life or property. But it is to this fire regime, the new fire regime of climate change, rather than to the regimes of 1983 or 1939, that the present fires belong.
Saturday's events showed us the terrifying face of climate change. The heat was devastating, even without the fire.
Wildlife carers reported many incidents of heat stress and death among native animals. This means that out in the bush, unreported, vast numbers of animals were suffering. We can all see the trees and other plants dying in our gardens and parks.
Our local fauna and flora have not adapted to these extremes. With wildfire, heat death becomes a holocaust, for people, for animals and for plants.
The Government is wondering how to stimulate the economy. It is planning to give away much of the surplus from boom times in handouts. It has made the usual token allocations to climate change mitigation, allocations that will in no way deflect the coming holocaust.
The Prime Minister weeps on television at the tragedy of Saturday's events. He looks around uncomprehendingly, unable to find meaning. But there is meaning. This is climate change. This is what the scientists told us would happen. All the climatic events of the past 10 years have led inexorably to this. And this is just the beginning of something that will truly, if unaddressed, overwhelm us.
As the events of Saturday showed, the consequences of climate change will make the financial crisis look like a garden party.