1.30 am, New Year’s Eve. The FiresNearMe text: Put your plan into action. I hear a vehicle down on the road, coming in from the forest. Then another. Soon, a constant stream.
2 am. We’re backing down the driveway, in two cars. I have the dogs, food for them, water, my walker, and the Mechanic has my scooter, our documents bag and the go-bag, which has been sitting in a corner for weeks.
Down at the Quaama fire shed an RFS guy stops us.
Do you know anyone out at Verona? he says.
Lots of homes are threatened. We can’t get out there, not enough of us.
Later, too late, I wondered if he wanted us to ring and warn them.
Australia’s 28th Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his cabinet were sworn in on Monday, 16 September 2013. His first act was to abolish the Climate Commission.
‘We knew it was going to happen and we had a plan,’ said Professor Lesley Hughes, a founding commissioner. ‘We had already registered the name “Climate Council”.’ She was speaking at the Bermagui Institute Public Dinner on 7 February 2019.
I love Radio National in the summer. They give their regular presenters a break and play reruns of the most popular shows and segments of the year. A kind of annual ‘RN Greatest Hits’. So last Saturday we heard on Ockham’s Razor—home of snappy, topical, sciencey talks—an account by cancer researcher Dr Fiona Simpson of the University of Queensland, of the uncertainty of securing funding for even the most promising of research projects.
There’s a drug, an antibody, given to people with head and neck cancers. It’s called Cetuximab. Of patients treated, 15% respond; the rest just get side-effects but no benefit. It costs the government $60,000 to treat each patient—whether they respond or not.
Dr Simpson’s quest was to find a way to predict who will respond and who won’t, potentially saving a heap of money, not to mention the unnecessary and debilitating side-effects for that 85% of patients who won’t benefit. It didn’t take her long—she discovered a test with 100% correlation. The next step was to secure funding for a large scale trial. But, ‘I couldn’t get any of the pharma companies interested in helping to develop the prediction,’ she said, ‘because it would have cost them 85% of their sales.’
‘Most people in Melbourne know who runs around in tight shorts and kicks goals for Carlton or Collingwood but they have no idea where their water comes from.’ Professor David Lindenmayer
This is a story about science, but it’s also a story about wilful ignorance, a looming catastrophe, and, to run with the football reference, an ‘own goal’ on the part of government. It’s a story about Mountain Ash forests 90 minutes to the northeast of the MCG, but it could just as easily be about our forests here on the Far South Coast of NSW.
Since the 1970s the Australian electorate has become increasingly disenchanted with the major parties. Lately this has accelerated. At the last federal election, the minor parties (including the Greens) attracted 36% of the vote. But this pattern is not spread evenly across the population; the minor party vote is a lot higher in regional areas. Overseas, this city/country divide was reflected in the Brexit vote, and in Trump’s election in the US.
What’s driving this, and what, if anything, should governments do about it?
NSW Environmental Defenders Office CEO Sue Higginson paints a picture of EDO lawyers, haggard and caffeinated, racing between their office on Clarence Street and the Land and Environment Court on Macquarie Street, chasing “mining companies with the deepest pockets you can imagine” and “lawyers who lodge Notices of Motion at 1 am”.
It’s comical until you realise the gravity of the work. The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) concentrates its resources on the cases that other lawyers don’t take on. Important public interest cases. Cases where there’ll be a lasting or permanent impact on the environment, where governments haven’t followed the law. Blowing the whistle, holding governments to account.
It was pretty clear to scientists in the 1990s that man-made carbon emissions were causing climate change—it had started with the Industrial Revolution. Two plans of action were mooted. Plan A: reduce emissions (mitigation). Plan B: adapt to the changes. But we weren’t going to need Plan B, were we? The fix was clear, and there was plenty of time …
Dr Helen Caldicott, anti-nuclear activist, humanist, physician, returned to Bermagui on 10 February during a week when South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was preparing to deliver its “Tentative Findings”. Dr Caldicott was speaking at the Bermagui Institute dinner; her topic was “Nuclear South Australia”.
The speaker shared anecdotes from her forty years of campaigning, detailed the hazards to human health and the environment presented by the nuclear industry, and advanced three main points: one, that the recent search for a site to store radioactive waste from Australia’s only nuclear reactor is premised on a lie; two, that Premier Jay Weatherill’s pursuit of a nuclear industry for SA is unnecessary and dangerous; and three, that public education and the democratic process are the only means by which nuclear expansion can be curtailed.
Upon hearing that the planet had warmed by one degree Celsius, a conservative politician said that he could get on a plane in Melbourne and get off in Sydney an hour later and find the temperature higher by a comfortable six degrees, so what’s the problem?
In fact, a global rise of one degree has increased the incidence of extremely hot days in southeast Australia by a factor of ten. It’s because temperatures, like most natural phenomena, arrange themselves along Bell curves. And a shift to the right of just one degree has massive ramifications, not at the height of the curve but at that very low, very sensitive-to-change high end. If it seems that bushfires are starting earlier in the season and becoming more frequent lately, that explains why.
Recently I heard the story of an American social worker whose job in the 1990s was to scour the mountains of Alaska, seeking the bolt-holes of Vietnam veterans who had decided to remove themselves from society, living off the land in isolated shacks. In the 20 years since the Vietnam War, more and more American vets had come to the grim realisation that they were now unable to coexist with their families and friends; to hold down jobs; to partake in society in any meaningful way.
Post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD.
The social worker’s task was to bring the vets into Anchorage to live in a halfway house and receive psychological therapy until they were willing and able to re-enter society. Of the degree of his success, I’m not sure.