Bushfire and the challenge to respond to new levels of environmental risk
There have been terrible bushfires this summer across southern Australia – and they are still going.
Part of the reason for this disaster is the unprecedented climatic conditions that the country has been facing, including record hot and dry conditions. Another part of the reason is the way we perceive of environmental risk and respond to it. In Australia, all states have been experiencing bushfire conditions that have tested our highly developed emergency response systems. As a result, perceptions of risk may never be the same in Australia, and we need to respond to that new level of awareness in the decisions we make in relation to risk. As the climate changes, we need to think differently about hazard management and plan our societies differently in response.
This is not a unique Australian situation. As environmental risk increases, new responses to changing environmental risk conditions are needed all over the world. As a result of climate change, we are seeing a range of severe fires in places that have not experienced such natural disasters before; fires at different times of year to what has been the historical norm in other places; or more dangerous, intensive and larger fires in places that are used to managing bushfires effectively. In countries like Switzerland and Scotland, as well as tropic regions, the concept of bushfire is changing from a minor hazard or a tool for ecological management, to a real threat. The regularity and intensity of bushfires in California have led some to question whether that US state is still the wonderful place to live in it once was. Together, the changing experiences across planet Earth are suggesting that a global ecological transition associated with climate change is partly being driven through the agency of fire.
Along with colleagues, we have been analysing how South Australia could respond to heightened levels of risk, and as our places change, asking what people think about our forests and associated biodiversity in relation to the bushfire risk. Clearly there will be ongoing challenges to ensure that our communities will be better prepared in the future. There are questions whether we are planning our suburbs and transport systems so that they fully account for environmental risk. On the other hand, if people perceive that climate change is increasing bushfire risk to undesirable levels, the pressure to act and mitigate the risk by clearing vegetation within important conservation areas could increase.
For some time we have been having conversations with groups around South Australia about the opportunities to respond to the new levels of environmental risk. People are thinking creatively about environmental risk and how to respond to it. In particular, many people we have talked with are open to more complex discussions about how we should respond to bushfire risk. For example, Indigenous communities made use of fire to mitigate bushfires across southern Australia for millennia and there is still much we could learn from those practices. We are not alone in the search for solutions – as the climate changes, all societies will be seeking out and exploring solutions to risks that will change how we think about and manage the places in which we live.
Associate Professor Douglas Bardsley
School of Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts