Debates will likely continue over whether the current fire season in Australia is unprecedented and directly linked to climate change. Most of the country’s native forest is well adapted to fires and soon after rain, they miraculously burst back into leaf, some would argue refreshed and even invigorated. This allows politicians to wait out the storm and later proclaim…”this is all quite normal in Australia”. In part that is true but I would also suggest this time the combined loss of life, property and native flora / fauna will be very hard to forget. There have certainly been bush fire events at least approaching this scale in the past but this time, there is a palpable sense of tipping point due to a combination of factors including;
- A new generation of climate aware citizens less concerned with selling coal than they are with air that is of a breathable quality
- The Australian government has appeared so sanguine as to infuriate. Their obvious conflict of interest in enacting a carbon policy has been utterly exposed
- Unprecedented global concern and media coverage including from high profile and well intentioned celebrities. Climate change is being widely credited for the disaster and climate deniers variously ridiculed and marginalized
It is reported that some 6 to 8.4 million hectares of “forest” has been burned, but we wait to see the impact on the plantation industry. Initial reports are suggesting large areas of productive timber plantations may be lost and these unfortunately do not rejuvenate following fire. Worse, the investment case for such plantations has now been critically undermined and therefore the capital to replant will likely be deployed in less fire prone geographies, or worse still, away from forestry altogether.It should be noted that climate change has some favorable impacts for forestry too, one of which is that more rain has been falling in North Western Australia, where plantation development is really just getting started. There are other geographies too, where climate change will be largely positive for plantation forestry; New Zealand amongst them. Higher temperatures, higher atmospheric CO2 levels and higher rainfall add up to faster tree growth. What’s required now is the establishment of some new plantations of serious scale but located in favorable geographies. Enlightened government policies (such is the case in NZ) to support that would be helpful to say the least. The environmental services provided by trees; including the oxygen we breath, has historically been taken for granted. Forests largely do not receive payment for environmental services and polluters have not largely paid for their emissions. We are saddened and deeply concerned for our Australian friends and hope that out of this misery, Maslow’s pyramid of needs gets reinvented. People actually do need a safe place to live and air that’s safe to breath, more than they need to sell coal to China. The establishment of new large scale plantations; in low fire risk regions, is currently the only viable way to ameliorate the increasingly evident impacts of climate change ….unless we all give up tomorrow our cars, planes and plethora of other carbon burning widgets.Finally, there appears a growing sense that this is not just Australia’s problem. It is a shared problem and a shared responsibility to address it. The time is upon us to prioritize the environment over the economy, because as we have seen in the last 12-months in Alaska, the Amazon, California and now Australia, the environment will have the last word.
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