Joan Didion said “information is control”. So with this in mind – with the help of Groundswell Giving – we sought answers to your questions about climate change and making a difference. Greg Mullins is the head of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, a collective of former senior Australian fire and emergency service leaders (from across the political spectrum). In the wake of Australia’s most destructive bushfire season on record, here he answers your questions – gathered via Instagram – about all we can do for a better future.
What’s the first thing we should be doing as a country to mitigate climate change?
Commit to a net-zero emissions policy for 2050, and then see if we can actually make it by 2030.
These fires – scientists have looked at it and said that this is what we expected [with] three degrees of warming, not one degree of warming. I was shocked … It outstrips anything that we thought would happen. So we must take action on emissions urgently.
Something we’ve seen this year is that Australians are engaging with politics for climate action. How can we drive urgency?
Don’t forget these bushfires. Don’t forget the coughing; the illness. Don’t forget the massive downpours. Don’t forget how bad this was – the heatwaves that killed so many more people than the fires but that’s all kept quiet. This is not normal, this is a climate change emergency.
Is there hope of us undoing the damage we’ve done, or is it too late?
You can’t ever lose hope. The facts are, before the industrial revolution we had 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’re at about 415 now. Carbon dioxide absorbs heat. Heat heats up the atmosphere. We know it’s human caused, because of the isotopic signature on the CO2. It’s from burning oil, coal and gas. We’ve locked in probably a century of warming, and if we don’t stop pumping CO2, methane, other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we’re heading for three or four degrees [of warming]. That might not be a planet that we can actually live on. We might not be able to grow food. Animals will die … So we need to take urgent action to try and dial it down for future generations.
"If we don’t do anything about the emergency, emergencies turn into disasters."
Are there any myths you could debunk about the recent bushfires in Australia?
One of the big ones was the fires were caused by arsonists. But when you looked into in the vast majority of the big fires were caused by lightning and that’s another symptom of climate change; we never used to get this many fires caused by lightning. One per cent of the area burned was burned by fires caused by arsonists, so there’s no real change in the number of arson-caused fires over the decade so that was a myth.
Another one was that Greens have stopped back burning, which is the wrong term anyway. They were talking about hazard reduction burning. Over the last decade there’s actually been more hazard reduction carried out in NSW than the previous decade but one of the big problems is that with climate change, our window to carry out hazard reduction is almost closed. We used to have six, seven months to burn. Now we’ve got about two, because we can’t hold the fires that we light.
"We can’t sit back. We have to demand action from our government."
What’s your best method for handling objections from non-believers?
Just stick to facts, verified facts, and point them towards [them]. Do fact checks … and send them the scientific papers that refute this stuff, and put them back on the straight and narrow. Say no, this is just deflection, because big business does not want us to take emissions action.
What can we do on an individual level that will actually have an impact?
Everyone can do something, whether it’s local action for local councils for recycling, for sustainable projects, getting solar panels on your roof, thinking about what you’re doing. But again, we need political action, because politicians set policies. They have no policy framework, they’re trying to delude the public in saying they have a climate change framework. They do not. So we have to demand it, as voters and as a community.
What’s the difference between ‘the weather’ and ‘the climate’?
Great question … Weather is today and tomorrow. Climate is weather measured over 20 or 30 years. And what I’ve seen in my long firefighting career, and my other colleagues who’ve joined with me to call for action, we’ve just seen this continual shift: hotter, drier, wilder weather and much longer fire seasons and many more days of very high to extreme fire danger – catastrophic fire danger – that’s climate. That’s over the long term.
This interview has been edited for length.