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Moment that mattered: Tasmania’s bushfires are put out after three months

A firefighter keeps an eye on a blaze burning in the Sydney suburb of Pittwater Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. Firefighters are battling scores of wildfires in southeastern Australia as hot, dry and windy conditions are combining to raise the threat. (AP Photo/Glenn Nicholls)

Tasmania is considered the cold part of Australia, the place that people move to if they miss England. It’s fairly wet as well, so it is unusual for Tasmania to experience such extreme bushfires, and it was shocking to see them last so long – they started back in early January.

But the fires were just one part of what the Climate Commission described as the ‘Angry Summer’. In their report of the same name, released in March (and available to download at climatecommission.gov.au), it showed how 123 historic temperature records were broken over the 90 days of this summer, including the hottest January, hottest summer and hottest day ever. Almost every state in Australia was hit with extreme and sustained heat.

There is a poem that calls Australia ‘a sunburnt country’ and it’s true that we have always had floods, cyclones, fires and other extreme weather, but what we are experiencing now is that these things are happening more frequently and intensely. The wildlife has been affected too: thousands of bats and birds have dropped dead from the heat, koalas have lost their habitats and died and turtles have starved as floods wipe out sea grass (visit 2degreesproject.com.au/Story to find out more).

One other effect of the bushfires and extreme weather over the Angry Summer was the start of a new shift in consciousness about climate change in Australia. In the past when there has been an extreme event such as a bushfire in which people have lost their lives, commentators have been nervous about linking it to climate change because of the emotion of the situation, but I think the narrative is starting to change as it has in the US. Things started to happen in the US around the time of Hurricane Sandy and a lot of people realised that climate change is real and it is happening now – it’s not just something that is going to happen in 20 or 30 years’ time.

When it comes to political attitudes towards climate change, we are a lot more like the US than we are like European countries. In Europe there is bipartisan support for action on climate change and putting a cap and price on pollution, which we just don’t have to the same extent here. Because we have such a resource-intense economy there are a lot of vested interests, and there has been a lot of money invested into refuting climate science and creating doubt. There are a lot trolls who are paid to get on news sites and try to debunk climate change reports with the most extreme arguments.

We have just celebrated our first anniversary of the carbon price, the emissions trading scheme known by its opponents as the carbon “tax”. In that year, emissions in the electricity sector have gone down 7.4 percent, renewable energy generation has increased by 30 percent, the economy has produced 150,000 new jobs and GDP has increased by 2.5 percent. So there is no real economic argument to be made against the carbon price. However the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, has said that if he wins the next election he will repeal it.

We need people to look beyond the politics and realise we can’t afford to lose the carbon price. But now we’re in winter, it’s harder to get the media to engage with climate change: a lot of people still associate it just with temperature, not the complexity of how it affects weather patterns. However when the extreme heat and bushfires start again, it will no doubt go back on the agenda.

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