First Published in 2002

How many Sydney suburban 4-wheel drivers, farmers and other high-consumption low-cost fuel advocates look at the bushfire smoke and make the connection that their carbon emissions will set the ground for twice as many bushfires by the time their children are driving?

Four years ago, I wrote on this page that the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's modelling of climate change impacts predicted a doubling of bushfire days by 2070 and the Federal Government, along with rural and outer suburban voters, needed to rethink their attitudes to climate change.

But the CSIRO now says that the doubling of days of very high and extreme fire danger is much closer - possibly as soon as 2030.

For south east Australia, increased global carbon levels means more storms, and more extreme heat days causing greater evaporation and less net moisture.

New South Wales and Victoria will become tinder dry with an increased chance of lightning.

The senior research scientist with the CSIRO's Climate Impact Group, Mr Kevin Hennessy, says we can expect the number of days above 35 degrees Celsius to increase over the next three decades, while relative humidity drops. Rain is expected to decrease.

"By 2030, eastern Australia may be 0.4 to 2.0 degrees Celsius warmer in spring and summer, leading to more days of extreme heat," says Mr Hennessy. Sydney's average number of summer days over 35 degrees doubles from two at present to four by 2030, and Canberra's average increases from four to 10 days. The probability of summer heat-waves (at least five consecutive days over 35 degrees) near Canberra, doubles from 20 percent at present to 40 percent by 2030.

Heatwaves are by far Australia's worst natural hazards, and have claimed 4,287 lives in the past 200 years - double the number of deaths from tropical cyclones or floods.

The CSIRO projections for rainfall, evaporation and relative humidity suggest a drier environment with more storms and lightning.

These factors combined with higher temperatures could lead to a doubling of fire danger under the worst case scenario for 2030, but the best case scenario may increase fire danger only slightly," says Mr Hennessy.

When the timetable for a doubling of bushfire destruction and loss of life has just been brought forward by 40 years, hoping for the best is an incredible policy. But it is exactly what the Federal Government - at the behest of its carbon fuel-happy electors - is doing, instead of preparing for the worst.

At the 1997 Kyoto climate change conference, while most of the developed world opted to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by about five percent below 1990 levels, Australia baulked.

The Howard government, threatening to scupper what needed to be a unanimous decision, won the right to an eight percent increase above 1990 levels. Today we are 17.4 percent above those levels.

In defending his stand on climate change, Mr Howard referred to the cost to Australia's coal and road transport industries of meeting tougher targets. What are these costs and how do they compare to the loss of lives, homes, insurance and productivity?

Ash Wednesday in February 1983 claimed 76 lives in Victoria and South Australia. In 1967, 62 people died in fires in and around Hobart. The Insurance Council of Australia says the material cost of major bushfires in the past 30 years is more than $700 million in current values. In total, 678 people have died in bushfires between 1827 and 1991.

How does the government measure those costs - against the claimed cost to industry of cutting back carbon emissions?

But we, the people, must also take responsibility. Australians still whinge about the price of petrol, despite the reality that we compete with the United States for the cheapest fuel in the developed world. Until he hears different, Mr Howard won't be in a hurry to raise fuel prices or introduce carbon taxes.

How long will it take before farmers and road lobbyists, begging for subsidies, make the connection that cheap fuel means more carbon emissions means more bushfires?

Given that the 2070 timetable has been brought forward 40 years in four years, they had better think quickly.

See the original article, written five years earlier: Firing Up

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