Three Gippsland Emergencies

The recommendation of the ‘Shire Council Officer’ (the CEO?) to the East Gippsland Shire councillors to not declare a climate emergency in many ways was to be expected.* For bureaucracy at all levels of government is still staffed with individuals primarily concerned with business as usual, with accommodating future threats with some action but lacking imagination to see the threats that global warming really involves.

Any reasonable definition of ‘emergency’ implies urgent, immediate and continuous action to combat, minimize or cope with the threat. By this definition east Gippsland has been confronted with three emergencies this year – the bushfires, the coronavirus pandemic and global warming – the first two have been clearly recognised but the last yet to be perceived or understood by the general populace or our politicians.

The bushfires in East Gippsland consumed a massive part of the shire area and prompted the State government to declare an emergency and order an evacuation for virtually the whole of the shire (see map above). Somewhat ironically this did not include Mallacoota where naval evacuations were yet to come. Nor was the influence of climate change on the drought, dry thunderstorms or subsequent fires recognised in the media, in politics or locally. An influence that is yet to be established but at least making these events three or four times more likely and severe.

The calls by local media and politicians to spend big in east Gippsland were succeeded almost immediately by the global coronavirus pandemic. Rightly, accepting the best scientific advice, our governments have mostly acted on this medical emergency (aside from the occasional cock-up) no doubt horrified by the possible fatalities likely to be experienced by delay, or no action. Governments that have ignored the science, or delayed their actions, are those that are experiencing horrific mortality rates with a world-wide total of about 150,000 deaths at the time of writing.

So far there has only been one confirmed case of coronavirus in East Gippsland but the economy of much of the region is devastated. Though financial conservatism and balanced budgets have been jettisoned the recovery from this will be painfully slow and may well extend into our next fire season. The advice of science to “go early and go hard” has been followed here with the coronavirus but ignored with climate. And as with the coronavirus many of the climate change effects are exponential.

Our treatment of climate change has been the opposite of the pandemic. We have ignored warnings for 30 years, including those by the CSIRO on the likelihood and severity of bushfires. Anti-intellectualism – that is the denial or distortion of basic facts – has meant that powerful vested interests and media personalities have used their power to politicise with propaganda sowing doubt and denial, dominating the political agenda. From this delay they have no doubt reaped enormous financial benefits.

Whilst the shire has taken the State government’s Take 2 initative and “is committed to tackling climate change” it has yet to realise that many of its actions** are business as usual. The three emergencies make the council plan to make east Gippsland “a liveable region” is probably now unobtainable. Their “strategy [to] identify three 10-year [climate] objectives” is far too late. The urgency and priority of the climate emergency is clearly not understood.

*In response to EG CAN petition for the shire to declare a climate emergency

**I have written positively on many of these actions (see here and here) and also on a number of occasions offered advice on possible emergency actions (see here).