Republished with permission from Social Policy Connections, an independent, ecumenical organisation, motivated and informed by Christian social thinking.
Victorians are deeply shocked by the devastation and appalling death toll from the February fires. The exceptionally dry summer had left rural areas tinder dry, and many people were dreading what a burst of really hot weather would bring. The State survived several days of over 43 degrees, but when temperatures broke previous records beyond 46 degrees, unstoppable fires roared through Kinglake, Marysville, parts of Bendigo and other towns.
Those who have lost family and friends in other tragic circumstances will have some inkling of what the survivors must be going through, with the loss of fathers and mothers, children, friends and neighbours. Their grief will be even more anguished because of the difficulty of arranging funerals.
Thousands more have lost homes and possessions, and possibly also their jobs. It is true that houses and businesses can be replaced over time, particularly with the strong support from governments and the wider community. But it will still require years of effort and struggle.
Apart from the immediate human trauma and destruction resulting from the fire, urgent questions arise about how to live in and manage our bush. It seems likely that the fires indicate that we can expect more such heat and fires in the future, with similar catastrophic consequences. This further confirms the anticipated effects of global warming.
Many expert voices have been warning for years about the impact of climate change, and Australians have been experiencing more extreme weather, from severe flooding in northern Australia to prolonged drought and record temperatures in other parts of the continent. Our major river systems are in a prolonged crisis, threatening our food productivity and exports.
The Victorian Government has announced it will set up a Royal Commission to examine issues arising from the fires. The commission will look not just at how to survive a fire in rural areas, or at developing better escape plans and mechanisms. It will need to consider how we live in fire-prone areas, how we build our houses, and indeed our whole relationship with the bush, including our glorious forests and wildlife.
If global warming continues as expected, even a small temperature rise of two degrees would have enormous consequences for farming, food production, water supplies and land management. What if temperatures rise five or six degrees, as some fear, in the lives of our grandchildren? Our forests would burn ferociously. What would be left of our fabulous bushland, with its unique trees, plants, animals and birdlife? Much of this precious heritage would be lost. And what would be the implications for future generations in a more barren land? What would our cities look like then?
It is difficult to know to what extent the February fires were exacerbated by global warming. But it seems highly probable that climate change is having a much more rapid impact than many scientists expected. The fires have vital lessons that we must not ignore. Our governments urgently need to “press the reset button” on climate change policy.
• Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the new Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, based at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.