AUSTRALIA – Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten both visited Tasmania on Monday, where catastrophic bushfires had reportedly destroyed eight homes and burnt 190,000 hectares of land as of Monday afternoon. Their visit came on the 10th anniversary of the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires.
The major parties’ pledges on climate change are expected to be a frontline issue at the upcoming federal election, as the public reels from record-high summer temperatures, extreme weather and a long, unforgiving bushfire season.
Fires are a natural phenomenon in the Australian bush, but experts say climate change effects such as heatwaves and changed rainfall patterns mean bushfires are becoming more frequent and extreme.
Mr Mullins said fire seasons “are longer, more severe, and we are getting fires that are much harder to put out”.
“What that means … is there is simply not enough firefighters and fire trucks to do the job, to protect every structure and protect people’s lives,” he said.
“It’s extremely inconvenient for any government that does not have a cogent answer for what they’ll do about climate change, to see the effects of climate change putting more and more people and homes at risk.”
Mr Mullins has 50 years of fire fighting experience, including 39 years with Fire and Rescue NSW and as a volunteer in his youth and in retirement. He has been awarded the prestigious Australian Fire Service Medal and is an officer of the Order of Australia. He is a member of the Climate Council and welcomed the formation of Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action.
Mr Mullins sought to raise the climate change alarm in public comments in 2006 following fires in the Blue Mountains, but says the then-NSW Labor government told him to “pull your head in”.
“They didn’t want public servants coming out saying [the climate change driver] was pretty obvious to us,” he said.
“I feel quite passionately that the word needs to get out about how much the bushfire threat has worsened. I’ve watched it change, and I’ve watched our politicians sit on their hands, from both major parties. I don’t think either of them really have answers or are doing enough.”
NSW Labor has been contacted for comment.
Mr Mullins said he was “astounded” that Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday addressed the media at Huonville in Tasmania, the epicentre of the state’s bushfire crisis, but did not mention addressing climate change.
“He seems like an intelligent person, he can read … it’s a very easy correlation and people in the [fire fighting] business know the links,” he said.
Mr Mullins said for the government, climate change was “a policy-free zone so he’s got no answers. So obviously you’d avoid it.”
Mr Morrison on Monday described as “pretty offensive” a tweet by federal Greens senator Nick McKim, which claimed Tasmania’s fires were “made more dangerous by [Mr Morrison’s] love affair with coal”.
Mr Morrison said many bushland areas in the state were unaffected by fire, and Tasmania remained “a wonderful place to come and visit”.
“[The government] will be working closely with the state government to ensure the rehabilitation and the recovery from these fires, both from a tourism-business point of view and more broadly,” he said.
In response to Mr Mullins’ remarks, a spokesman for Environment Minister Melissa Price said the government was “contributing to global efforts to reduce emissions”.
Speaking in Tasmania, Mr Shorten said while climate change was not responsible for every natural disaster “even the most extreme climate deniers are probably at the point of acknowledging that we are having more and more extreme weather events”.
“New weather records are being set and the economic cost is growing … I think it is legitimate to talk about climate change,” he said, calling on the government to act.
A Labor government would reduce carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, based on 2005 levels. The government has pledged to reduce emissions by 26 per cent over the same period, however, the OECD says Australia will miss that target under current policy settings.