We should always try and learn from bad experiences, and I think there are three things that we should take out of this one. First, as Paul Gilding writes in the December 2013 edition of Spinifex, the publication of Queensland Conservation, while it’s understandable that people don’t like talking about climate change in the middle of a bushfire emergency, this is in fact precisely the time when we should be talking about it. As he says, people don’t like talking about uncomfortable things. The thought that major bushfire emergencies could become more common, with people dying and houses and communities being destroyed, is very uncomfortable. The thought that we are aggravating this by our greenhouse gas emissions is particularly uncomfortable.
So it is understandable that people prefer not to talk about it. But as Paul Gilding also says, the resistance from right wing politicians and commentators to linking climate change and fires is not just driven by compassion for those suffering loss. As the old quote goes, “Hell hath no fury like a vested interest disguised as a moral principle”. If the public learns to relate natural disasters that go to the heart of the Australian psyche, like fire, drought and flood, to climate change – those who resist strong climate policy will be in serious trouble. So the first thing is that as a community we need to understand the link between carbon emissions and extreme weather events, and be willing to talk about it.
Secondly we had the experience in Melbourne of our electricity demand exceeding supply, and people being cut off at perhaps the very time they needed power most. It is at such times that renewable energy is not just the right option for the planet, but the right option for households and our electricity supply system. People who install solar panels contribute to electricity during these peak times when we need electricity most, so they are doing everyone a favour. Secondly, if people have their own independent means of electricity generation they are much better able to cope with power outages and cutbacks. It was a mistake for the Victorian Government to cut payments for solar energy in 2012 to households that supple electricity to the grid from 25 cents per kilowatt hour to 8 cents. South Australia has more rooftop solar, meeting 7 to 8 % of total demand, compared with Victoria’s 2%. We should be aiming to match and surpass South Australia in the field of solar panels. Similarly it would be a disastrous mistake for the Federal Liberal Government to discourage renewable energy, for example by watering down the Renewable Energy Target. Renewable energy is exactly what we will need more of to contain electricity bills, and build our independence and resilience to face the world of the future.
Third, Melbourne is leading Australia for heat-related deaths, because we are hotter than our surrounds. We have about 200 heat related deaths each year, and this is expected to more than double by 2030. The city centre is up to 4 degrees hotter than the suburbs because of the heat island effect. This comes from cutting down trees, leading to a lack of shade and open green space. I have constituents reporting their neighbours’ air conditioners spilling out hot air and foiling their attempts to cool their yards. High rise buildings are trapping and storing heat like a baking oven. The high ceilings of the early European settlers are largely gone. People who believe or claim that urban consolidation and high rise is environmentally desirable are wrong. As Nursery and Garden Industry Australia says, we need to increase, not reduce, urban green spaces. We need to maintain and increase our tree canopy and urban vegetation, not allow it to disappear to make way for dual occupancies, multi-unit developments, and high rise.