Gippsland News & Views

Bushfires, Coronavirus and the Climate Emergency in Gippsland

There are no figures on cancellations caused by our recent unprecedented bushfires but there can be little doubt that local businesses have suffered severely. Anecdotally there are numerous accounts of holidays cancelled or deferred including that of my daughter, currently overseas, who postponed her visit in February because of smoke problems. In the 2003 fires my tourist dependant business in Swifts Creek took a big hit, as it also did in the 2006/7 fires. Tourists are easily discouraged by severe fire danger days or even in some cases fires in some remote part of the region, let alone monster fires, emergencies, major road closures and evacuation notices.

Now the coronavirus threatens to overwhelm us completely. Whilst it is yet to come to Gippsland a chemist acquaintance assures me it will eventually affect 60-70% of the population.  It is already dampening down economic activity across the country. Its arrival here depends on how effectively the various actions of the authorities slow down the process. But it may well turn the local suffering into a complete disaster.

Locally we have various media organisations calling for a return of tourists to boost our bushfire damaged economy whilst a local medico – Dr Rob Phair – is calling for Gippsland to remain isolated as a means of slowing the spread of the virus (see graph above of how delay is important). As in countries like Italy the population age of Gippsland is skewed towards the elderly – those most vulnerable to the virus.

To further complicate matters there are other factors that may make our economic situation dire. The current collapse of oil prices is ominous but well beyond our control. But the ‘elephant in the room’ may well be economic collapse brought about by climate change factors as outlined recently by Paul Gilding. With pump-priming already commenced by the Morrison government the place to build infrastructure is in the new economy with renewables – in power production, transport, industry and agriculture. 

Which brings us back to the bushfires. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the earth’s climate has been warming all our lives and the current decade is the warmest on record. It follows that extreme weather events including droughts and bushfires are being increasingly influenced by the warming (see the latest Climate Council Bushfire Report here). Perhaps the coronavirus emergency will eventually be replaced by an enduring climate emergency. It is ironic that in this instance the governments (correctly if sometimes belatedly) are following the directions of science, whilst the science of climate change, after 30 years, is still ignored.

Enough with the Climate Gloom by Michael Whelan

Bob Davies at Bimbadeen and his ground-breaking trials of carbon farming

Excerpts from an article in the Bass Coast Post

Workshop sessions at the Climate Emergency Summit in Melbourne last weekend filled up quickly so I didn’t get to all of the sessions I would have liked. Inevitably such large gatherings become more of a spectator event than a working strategic session.

In this climate change journey we find ourselves frustrated at the lack of government action, incredibly concerned for our children and grandchildren and jaded with the overload of tragedies that are occurring globally. Many of the speakers at the Summit reflected this frustration, speaking at length of the dark future if we don’t take strong action. But not enough was said about what a strong approach looks like and the benefits it would bring humanity and the creatures we share the planet with…

I tend to think of it along the lines of the Third Industrial Revolution espoused by Jeremy Rivkin. Rivkin describes the change as the equivalent of the change from steam to the internal combustion engine. A radical transition that will leave many current industries – such as coal and fossil fuel extraction – as stranded assets. The economic role for discovered coal and fossil fuel in the new economy will be as carbon credits for foregone exploitation rights…The World Economic Forum has identified the failure to respond to climate change as the biggest threat to the global economy.

We must respond, but how will the business future in Bass Coast look? We are a prime area for carbon farming with some local farmers leading the way. Carbon farmers of the year Bob and Anne Davie on Phillip Island and Bass Coast Landcare are exploring new ways to farm and join the carbon market. Economist Ross Garnaut predicts that in the near future farmers will make more money from marketing carbon than selling livestock.

Cleaner waste and landfill is already being delivered through the Bass Coast Council’s food and garden organics (FOGO) initiative, achieving a 76 per cent diversion from waste with just 1 per cent contamination. In the future we should regard FOGO as a resource and process it here in Bass Coast for Bass Coast farms and to assist in carbon sequestration. Jobs will come from processing as they will from the marketing of carbon. Some farmers in South Gippsland already differentiate their product on quality as carbon free and grown by regenerative farming techniques…

A couple of cafés on Phillip Island already have zero waste… Totally Renewable Phillip Island (TRPI) is working on a community energy project that will give them clean energy and control over energy prices as well as projects to deliver food security and clean transport.

Council’s new Climate Emergency Community Reference Group commenced on Friday and will help prepare a living Action Plan. If we are positive and change the debate from the doom and get going on the new clean sharing economy we will not only be healthier but a thriving business area as well.

*Cr Geoff Ellis and Cr Michael Whelan attended the 2020 National Climate Emergency Summit as representatives of Bass Coast Shire Council. Cr. Ellis article was posted last week under the title “Bass Coast Councillors at the Climate Emergency Summit “.

Garnaut’s Superpower and Gippsland


Ross Garnaut is probably the most well-known economist in Australia. The publicity of his most recent book Superpower: Australia’s low-carbon opportunity (Latrobe Uni Press, 2019)* has been widespread across the media. As a solution or partial solution to the problems of climate change most of these ideas have been around for quite some time and is obvious to all excepting those prisoner to the fossil fuel industry (our politicians) and those persuaded by its propaganda.

Last year I delivered to the local U3A a long power point lecture on Gippsland as a renewable energy superpower. Some of the points in it had already been taken up by the State Labour government such as establishing electric vehicle manufacturing in the Latrobe Valley. This proposal is ideally suited to the ‘just transition’ providing employment where it is most needed. However the pollies still have no grasp of the urgency of the warming problem and nearly halfway through the government’s term, nothing much has happened.

Battery manufacture, floating solar and pumped hydro are valley opportunities that have as far as I am aware been ignored. And the Delburn wind farm development has been delayed by a few recalcitrants yet to grasp the climate emergency. Likewise our state politicians are yet to spruik the amazing opportunities of the Star of the South offshore wind farm.

Garnaut lists all these things and has a number of other opportunities suitable to our region including the opportunities for carbon farming in a chapter he calls ‘Earthing Carbon’. It is often forgotten that after reaching carbon neutrality we then have to begin carbon drawdown. Garnaut also has hopes for hydrogen produced from renewable energy rather than brown coal and carbon capture and storage (CCS) – both touted as solutions in Gippsland. As many have noted these new, untested, technologies such as CCS are not needed as the transition can be made economically with what we have now.

The main aim of the book is to free up ‘climate policy’ in our parliaments so this just transition can happen as seamlessly as possible. Rather than attacking the naysayers Garnaut is saying this is where the jobs are, and where the future lies, definitely not in the old technologies. In his concluding chapter he highlighted “special advantages at first of the old transmission nodes of coal generation” including the Latrobe Valley. “Old industrial towns have legacies of infrastructure and industrial culture that have value for the new industrial activity.”

Now is the time for our legislators at all levels to take note of the momentous problem of global warming and put the positive, and readily available, solutions in place. Rapidly.

*copy in the East Gippsland Shire Library

2020 National Climate Summit by Ro Gooch

The Nation Climate Summit: Two days of climate change immersion. Two days of listening to the many speakers who have spent years researching, speaking and writing on this critical issue facing humanity.  People like Paul Gilding, David Sprat, Margret Klien Salamon, Rebecca Huntley, Michael Mann, Ian Dunlop, Greg Mullins. The list goes on. It was a good opportunity to listen to these people in person, as opposed to YouTube, articles and audios. It was also good to be surrounded by people experiencing much the same feelings of grief, anger and frustration.

Overall there was much to take home to, contemplate, to digest and to integrate into a climate change action toolbox. While the information, on the whole, was grim there was a consistent message of hope in the possibilities of a liveable future if immediate and strategic actions were taken at a Federal Government level.

The summit focused on four areas – Climate Impact, failure of leadership, strengthening democracy and addressing the threat. Each session had an array of speakers who gave a short talk before conducting a sort of Q & A session. While this was interesting and at times entertaining, the most useful session for me were the breakout sessions. These sessions had the same format, but because they looked at specific areas were able to dig a little deeper.

‘Getting the Message Right’ and ‘The Activism Gap’ were two particularly helpful sessions on tackling climate change messaging.  A number of speakers spoke to this challenging issue, making the points that we don’t have to convince everybody, we don’t have to know all the facts and figures and that telling our story and listening to other person’s story is critically important. They emphasized the importance of starting a climate message with a ‘victory plan’, or a picture of how it could be. In other words, tell the truth with a vision of the future, a realistic vision because we have the solutions and we can make the changes necessary for a positive future.

Big messages from this summit can be summed up in the: Need for a better democracy built from the bottom up; Climate should be the primary target; Next ten years critical we need to bring our emissions down; STOP BURNING FOSSIL FUEL; The risks of doing nothing is too great; Zero emissions by 2050 is too little too late.

The summit finished with Ian Dunlop announcing The Safe Climate Declaration campaign and join the call emergency level action. Please Sign on and endorse.

*The author is a facilitator of the East Gippsland Climate Action Network and Bairnsdale Extinction Rebellion.

**Watch the live recording from the Summit

Climate Science, Denialism and Scepticism

Recently the blog by Tom Moore on Climate Denialists* attracted some criticism. It became obvious fairly quickly that the main critic fitted into Tom’s ‘climate denier’ category himself. Amongst other things he committed the standard error of a denier in ‘cherry picking’ his sources. The underlying ‘anger’ in his response was another. But two points he made are worth answering. The first was that as he had scientific training he implied that he knew better than others. The second was that the author of the blog ‘did not understand the scientific process’.

The first can be easily dismissed as he appeared to be denying or ignoring some parts of the ‘scientific process’ himself such as the basic physics of the greenhouse effect which has withstood the rigours of the science for more than 100 years. Or the fact that knowledge itself is a series of building blocks which we are continually adding to or modifying based on observation, measurement and experimentation. His second criticism is more important and appears to be confusing the term ‘denialism’ with ‘scepticism’.

‘Denialism’ is prevalent among many of our politicians and a select band of journalists operating under the banner of the Murdoch media.** This coterie either denies or ignores the logic of the greenhouse effect and the well-established consequences of increasing greenhouse gases. They ignore the overwhelming evidence that has been collected over the last 30 years that confirms the dire predictions of our own CSIRO scientists in the 1980s on bushfires, drought and other extreme weather events.

However critical ‘scepticism’ is an important part of the scientific method. In science the aim is to disprove a hypothesis and the hypothesis then is disproved, modified or becomes accepted over time. For those interested in an understanding of climate change and science in more detail I recommend this article by Andrew Gunner ‘Convergence: the basis of scientific confidence’.

But an ordinary person does not have to have scientific training to acknowledge or trust the science. We do it every day. We go to a qualified doctor when we are sick and trust the pilot when we are flying. If we are concerned about the power of the denialists in politics and the media then we need to be critical of where we get our information from – accredited and reliable sources like the CSIRO, the BOM or the various universities across the country.

We also need to way up the vast amount of evidence that has been accumulated by science and weather bureaus around the planet. Accurate measurement and observation being another essential part of the ‘scientific process’. And then inform our politicians that we want them to take note of what science has been saying for a long time and act upon it.

* I try not to waste too much energy on ‘denialism’. But occasionally a blog sneaks in. See here.

**To answer many of the myths, ‘red herrings’ and other denialist claims go to the sceptical science website.

Bass Coast Councillors at the Climate Emergency Summit (1)

from left: Oliver Yates, Lydia Thorpe, Greg Mullins.(Geoff Ellis)

Salutations from the high ground by Geoff Ellis*

Excerpts from an article in the Bass Coast Post

Like the climate emergency itself, the National Climate Emergency Summit in Melbourne last weekend was almost too big. As the nine o’clock opening approached I strode to the end of the queue for the delegates’ entrance. Surprise! The line starts 200 metres around the next corner.

I shuffle into the queue and put my journo question to the first person who makes eye contact. “Where are you from and why are you here?” The couple next to me are from the edge of Torres Strait. Their beaches and their islands are in peril. They had to shift their cemetery to higher ground to save it from the rising tide. I compare the risks to our dunes and Bunurong artefacts. Inundation and development.

We have the same issues at both ends of our continent. Fires and floods in between. What’s the word I’m looking for? Sobering, poignant, critical, doomed – it’s all of that, and more, and the line shuffles forward. Later in the day I talk to a guy sitting by himself, three rows back from the main stage. Geoff’s from Peregian Beach, Sunshine Coast. He’s been evacuated FOUR times between September 1 and December 18 due to uncontrollable bush fires…

Near the end of the two days, I attend a session that includes a presentation by a guy from Friends of the Earth who visited Inverloch. Twice. Don’t mention the Inverloch Surf Life Saving Club, eh? He mentions Bass Coast in his talk and how good it is to see local government represented here. I snap a pic and post it on Facebook, just to return the compliment…

Somewhere in there I was interviewed by 3CR for a summit special to be broadcast from 7-9 am this Saturday. The interviewer asks me why I’m here. Because Bass Coast Shire declared a climate emergency in August and our action plan is about to commence. Here to listen to the experts and the true believers. I mention John Hewson and Zali Steggall.

The summit was full of optimism but if you look at the targets there isn’t much time. The road along Jam Jerrup might crumble into the sea within three years, according to DELWP. But the planning scheme still permits development along that road.

On Saturday afternoon we had a thousand people on the same page. On Sunday morning I watched Insiders and there was nary a mention of climate, action or otherwise. There was a half an hour discussion about leadership tussles in the Nationals. Barnaby. Who?

After the final session, on the way out of the Town Hall, I bumped into Julian Burnside. I had to ask him “What did you think of that?” “It was a great event,” he said politely. I asked him if he was optimistic. “Not while fuckwits are in power,” he said.

*Cr Geoff Ellis and Cr Michael Whelan attended the 2020 National Climate Emergency Summit as representatives of Bass Coast Shire Council. Next week Cr. Whelan’s piece.

Heads in the Sand XR South Gippsland by Jessica Harrison

From Bass Coast CAN Newsletter Feb 20 [pdf]

To reflect the nation’s poor leadership in tackling the ravaging effects of climate change, over 250 community members gathered to bury their heads in the sand at Inverloch beach.

Lead by Southern Gippsland Extinction Rebellion, the aim was to bring attention to the attitude of political leaders and multinational corporations towards climate change.

Group Convenor and Foster local Lynn Atkinson said she was burying her head in the sand to highlight the behaviour of this country’s political leaders when facing climate change and the multinational corporations which profit from their inaction.

“It warmed my heart to see so many Gippslanders, plus people from as far away as Healesville, coming here today to demonstrate how important it is to address the climate emergency,” she said.

“At the start of these bushfires, our nation’s leader was literally on the sand, in Hawaii on holiday. Companies keep on opening up new coal mines and coal power plants without any consideration of their impact on our environment,” she said.

“Negligence from successive governments is killing people, and harming the health of many more, with disadvantaged communities the hardest hit. Whole ecosystems have been destroyed while extinction threatens many species.”

Miriam Riverlea from Mallacoota attended the action. Her family is staying at Cape Woolamai on Phillip Island until it is safe to return. “What is so amazing is to have no idea when we can go home, but to find a community of people here who totally get what our family is going through as a result of climate change.”

The East Gippsland Bushfires Still

I have just learned that an EGCAN member and contributor to this blog Kay Schieran has had his house burned down. He is the second friend to suffer this loss in our ‘unprecedented’ fires. Anecdotal evidence continues to indicate how the disaster has affected everyone’s lives from the numerous evacuation notices and false alarms to those smoke affected, to the tourist business casualties and the rush for rental accommodation in Bairnsdale.

The Murdoch media continues to deflect from the climate change issue sowing doubt and apportioning blame. The two main furphies they have floated have been that the fires have been started by arsonists and that the fires could have been controlled or stopped with controlled burns. With regards climate change both claims are beside the point as it is the warming and drying of the region, combined with strong winds, that has made the fires unstoppable.

As well as this many commentators (old, white, male, ‘shiny bums’ from the city with a few exceptions) confused ‘back burning’ with ‘controlled’, ‘low intensity’ or ‘prescribed’ burns. The former being part of the fire-fighter’s tools whilst the latter being burns conducted in the off season to reduce the fuel load. There is a small element of truth in the ‘controlled’ burns thesis. I am reliably informed that some areas, such as Sarsfield, could have been better prepared with limited controlled burns, especially noting that these burns are most effective close to the assets they are designed to protect.

Although fuel loads are an important aspect of the fires, to isolate and appropriate blame on this element alone to the exclusion of temperature, topography, vegetation, humidity, and wind speeds is pure political propaganda. To counter this some anecdotal accounts have country burning twice – tricking along the ground during mild conditions and crowning when the Forest Fire Danger Index soars. Also country that has been previously burned in bushfires or in controlled burns in the last ten years has burned again. Finally there is mounting evidence that the burning process, whatever its origins (controlled burns, logging or bushfires) actually encourages low level fire prone vegetation for about thirty years.

Another aspect barely considered is that as the region has warmed and dried the ‘window of opportunity’ for controlled burns is restricted. Controlled burns can quickly become uncontrolled. There are a number of examples of these ‘escapes’ – the winter bushfire at Cape Conran in 2018 is one example.

The other media slander – that the fires were caused by arsonists – is demonstrably untrue. A number of fires in mountainous, inaccessible areas in East Gippsland were ignited by ‘dry lightning’ on November 21. As I have previously pointed out, so too were the mammoth blazes in Gippland earlier this century 2003 and 2006/7 ignited by dry thunderstorms. And as noted previously there is evidence that this form of ignition will increase with the warming (see here and here).

ABC journalist Kellie Lazzaro noted on February 10 (see above) that there was still substantial fire activity in our region. This date makes the East Gippsland fires of 81 days duration – unprecedented and still trickling away in many places. The final statistics for these fires may still be some time coming.

Scott Hamilton and the Black Saturday Anniversary

from the Hamilton article

Sometimes an important article passes ‘under the radar’ in the 24 hour news cycle. Such was the fate of Scott Hamilton’s article last year on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires published in the Conversation under the headline ‘Climate change is poised to deliver more Black Saturdays in decades to come’. The article begins with an account of his involvement with relatives in Churchill and Boolarra during the fires and other details of the damage caused on Black Saturday. Scott then relates some of his experience advising governments on climate change* and aside from advising the Victorian government, noted his own work on the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review, and reports from the CSIRO in 2015 and the Climate Council in 2017.

On the consequences of a warming planet and our unique fire-prone locality Scott noted that:“The climate is changing due to human induced greenhouse gas emissions, and this means more bushfire danger days in what is already one of the most fire-prone countries in the world. Unfortunately, we have not done enough to curb climate change and the situation is getting worse…” and “Climate change means more days of extreme heat, longer heatwaves and more frequent droughts. Droughts now occur further south than in the past and have been increasing in Australia’s southeast, including Tasmania. The records continue to tumble, and the evidence of dangerous climate change continues to mount.”

In his conclusion Scott warned of the possibility of major disruptions to our water supply with future fires. “Our grandfathers and grandmothers had the wisdom to build amazing water infrastructure, protected by the “closed catchments” that give Melbourne and Victoria some of the best water in the world. Bushfires are a major risk to these water supplies – particularly in the catchments of major dams such as the Thomson. A bushfire followed by a downpour that washes ash into the dam could potentially force the closure of the trillion-litre capacity Thomson reservoir, making it unusable for months.”

Fortunately that has not yet come to pass. However almost all of the predictions of Scott and the others have been seen in our 2019/20 bushfires – some, like East Gippsland, still burning. Their work has built on, and expanded, the pioneering work of Tom Beer and others at the CSIRO when they predicted that with 3 degrees of warming “the fire danger every year on average would be larger than the fire danger during the year (1983) in which Ash Wednesday occurred.” As the work of Hamilton, Garnaut, the CSIRO and the Climate Council has shown we are well on the way there. To repeat a phrase I have already overused ‘Welcome to the pyrocene.’

* Scott still “advises governments, businesses and communities on climate change, water and renewable energy

Our Bushfires, Science and Climate Change – a call to action by 274 Australian Scientists

A brief excerpt of the introduction and key points. Full letter here.

“Scientific evidence unequivocally links human-caused climate change to the increasing risk of frequent and severe bushfires in the Australian landscape. That same science tells us these extreme events will only grow worse in the future without genuine concerted action to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases.

We, the undersigned climate, weather and fire scientists, call on our country’s leaders and policymakers to develop science-informed policies to combat human-caused climate change. To be successful, these policies must urgently reduce Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions and lead to constructive engagement and agreements with other world leaders for coordinated global climate action.

We call on our leaders to unite to develop non-partisan, long-term policies that will enable the managed transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 that the scientific evidence shows is required to avoid dangerous human-caused climate change. The science is clear. It is time to show leadership and set a clear path to protect our country and way of life for future generations.

This statement summarises the scientific basis for the links between climate change and bushfires in Australia, and the climate action that is required to limit further worsening of our bushfire risk and build a stronger and more resilient Australia.

Key points:

Human-caused climate change is worsening fire-weather and bushfires in southern and eastern Australia.

Observations show a trend towards more frequent and extreme fire-weather conditions during summer, and an earlier start to the fire season, particularly in southern and eastern Australia.

Australia’s year-to-year climate variability is being altered by climate change. This variability, combined with regional rainfall trends and human-caused warming, contributed to the extremely dangerous bushfire conditions this summer.

Dry fuel loads related to widespread drought provided conditions for extensive burning in the 2019/20 bushfires.

Australia’s dangerous fire-weather is virtually certain to worsen in the future with ongoing human-induced climate change, making fire management increasingly challenging.

Australia is part of the Paris Agreement and has a commitment to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, which would significantly reduce the intensification of Australia’s bushfire risk along with many other climate change risks. The current emission reduction targets of Australia and the world are insufficient and will commit us to 3°C or more of warming by the end of this century.