Are we fiddling while Australia burns?

Embed from Getty Images

The good news for Australia is that temperatures have fallen and rain is forecast.

I was born and brought up in Australia, so can imagine all too vividly what it is like to live through the horror of out of control bushfires. I’ve seen one from a distance, and even though I was safe it was frightening. Having to flee to the nearest beach in order to save yourself from burning to death is terrible to contemplate.

Although bushfires have always been part of the Australian experience, the number and intensity of the fires has increased. In the 1950s and 60s we had bush fires, but no ‘bush fire season’, as there is now.

In the latest fires thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed, individuals have died, native species are in danger of extinction. Forests that have never before caught fire have burned. Thousands of Australians are packed ready for evacuation, if necessary. This bushfire season started early, and we are now into January and February – the two hottest months when fires are most likely to occur. If rain doesn’t come, the nightmare will continue.

Australia is the climate change canary in the mine. Temperatures will continue to rise, droughts and bush fires will continue to get worse. Australians are wondering how long it will be before their country is unliveable.

These unprecedented bushfires are due to a long drought, and the highest temperatures ever recorded. Both are a result of climate change due to human activity. They are a warning that we must halt our use of fossil fuels if we want to avoid climate catastrophe.

It is not just Australians whose lives are being destroyed by climate change. People all over the world are losing their homes through flooding, starving to death due to drought, grappling with cyclones and hurricanes, or contemplating a future when their country is submerged by the sea.

Where are the Liberal Democrats in all this? The press releases and emails members receive describe worthy aims and sensible policies.

Nonetheless, reading these communications over the last couple of months, the saying ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’ came to mind. Although they often relate to things happening in the news, there has been nothing about the Australian fires and the climate crisis they are pointing to. Does this mean that addressing the issue is not high on the Liberal Democrat agenda?

The Liberal Democrat environmental policies are good, as far as it goes. But we need to be doing more. It is clear that if we continue on as normal the next generation will be engaged in a struggle for basic survival in the face of ever increasing extreme weather events.

Liberal Democrats can’t continue relegating the issue to just one policy among many, ignoring the signs that climate change is happening even faster than expected.

This is an emergency; it requires immediate and radical action.

* Catherine Wilson is a Liberal Democrat member in Wales

Read more by or more about , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • As Far as I can tell, the UK will end up a bit hotter, a lot wetter and suffer from some coastal erosion. The first step, rather than broad idealism of vague statement should be aimed at how individuals can help calm the climate.

    Minimalism in energy usage needs to be encouraged by removing standing charges from energy bills and have a low energy rate that is half the current rate (money recovered by having a higher rate for high users). Widespread usa of water butts for flushing toilets encouraged by foregoing. Smart meters that run backwards when connected to solar panels for new installation would encourage their adoption. The health benefits from NOT using hot water and waking to a full power cold water shower should be emphasized and encouraged by not allowing new boiler installations to include hot water. I am sure there are many more micro ideas that will encourage a more green lifestyle…

  • Tobias Sedlmeier 15th Jan '20 - 10:46am

    Catherine: What point are you trying to make here? Everyone in the UK is aware of what is happening in Australia. I agree with you that LibDems need to be willing to advocate for societal scale change in the UK to reduce CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult given the many vested interests. However, as regards Australia, perhaps Australians will learn the lesson that they need to reduce their CO2 emissions. CO2 emissions per capita in Australia are 3 times what they are in the UK. They should also stop mining and selling lots of coal. Until Australians start to do that, they can hardly expect much sympathy. (And I say that as the husband of an Australian who shares this view.)

  • Chris Howden 15th Jan '20 - 10:51am

    @Frank West whilst I agree with the sentiments of your comment, forcing people to have cold showers doesn’t strike me as particularly liberal

  • Alan Stephenson 15th Jan '20 - 11:12am

    Hi Catherine

    ”Are we fiddling while Aistralia burns” ?

    I think the short answer is YES

    I din’t see anything happening soon that will change the situation,too many vested interests and self preservation.People generally don’t like anything which changes their lifestyle very much or cause them inconvenience or make them poorer.
    It will take a brave government to make drastic changes,they will just be voted out.Mr Morrisons policy regarding the coal situation in Australia now appears to attract a lot of criticism,but he was doing what he thought was good for the country and the economy.

    President Trump is doing what is popular regarding energy supplies in the USA, and Chine and India I suspect will continue down their respective paths towards bringing their nations up to equal standards with the highly developed nations.Brazil will continue to turn a blind eye to the burning of the Amazon forests,all in the interests of popularity and their economies.
    The UK has made some good green moves ,but as always ,there is much more to do,and we must continue on this path,although the UK only produces around 2% of world pollution,we must be seen to do ”our bit” and try to encourage other nations to do theirs

  • Since returning to LDV I too have been puzzled by the lack of interest by the party in climate change. As Catherine points out:

    ‘Liberal Democrat environmental policies are good, as far as it goes. But we need to be doing more. It is clear that if we continue on as normal the next generation will be engaged in a struggle for basic survival in the face of ever increasing extreme weather events.’

    Quite why this is the case is difficult to say, but on LDV there has been a preoccupation with the fall out from the GE results. Perhaps this is just the short-term reaction – after all environmental issues were regularly quoted as the reason why we should not leave the EU.

    The UK outside of Europe will still be responding to the IPCC even if it is failing to deliver the necessary reductions in CO2 emissions – Greta Thunberg’s primary motivation for her school strike movement. However, this does not prevent the party from campaigning strongly for improvements on a matter that is steadily becoming an issue of greatest concern to voters.

    Do party members really believe climate change is not of great concern when articles like these regularly appear in the papers?

    Activists cheer BlackRock’s landmark climate move but call for vigilance
    Divestment decision by the world’s biggest fund manager called a breakthrough – but only a first step

    Australia fires are harbinger of planet’s future, say scientists
    Apocalyptic scenes give glimpse of what would be normal conditions in 3C world

    And isn’t this New Zealand initiative one the UK might consider adopting?

    New Zealand schools to teach students about climate crisis, activism and ‘eco anxiety’
    Changes to the curriculum will put the country at the forefront of climate crisis education worldwide

  • The New Zealand options is sound.It is the children of today that will have to cope with the problems. By children informing their parents of their concerns we may get somewhere.

  • >These unprecedented bushfires are due to a long drought, and the highest temperatures ever recorded.
    Made worse by poor land management practises, specifically not talking to the Aboriginals/First Peoples who have relevant cultural knowledge and who practised controlled burning to reduce the amount of tinder and ability of fires to grow so strong and spread.

    There is much the UK can do and with the Brexit enabled economic downturn and the associated increases in the price of oil imports, are going to be more easily implemented.

    However, we do need to be careful and not rush headlong into things; FlyBe is a timely reminder of the complexity of the oil-dependent society we have created.

  • Fuel loads (dead trees, fallen branches and tree debris) in Australia have traditionally been reduced by controlled burning when the weather is appropriate. In recent years, controlled burning has been abandoned in many areas in order to avoid greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Without fire breaks and normal land management there is nothing to stop fires burning out of control

  • Can anyone explain to me why an air temperature of 45 degrees Celsius should cause much more severe bush fires compared with a normal summer air temperature of 40 degrees Celsius in the Australian tropics. A difference of a few degrees will make negligible difference to the dryness of dead wood that has been baking in drought conditions all summer. Warm air cannot cause ignition of fires.

    The BBC, press and commenters here seem to be aware of a mysterious mechanism not known to science.

  • Alan Stephenson 15th Jan '20 - 5:22pm
  • Paul Barker 15th Jan '20 - 5:50pm

    As a small Opposition Party on the other side of The World there isnt much we can do to help Australia beyond our usual Campaigning for Green measures.

  • John Marriott 15th Jan '20 - 8:49pm

    @Paul Barker
    And, as a small country on the edge of Europe, whatever we do to reduce carbon emissions will have little impact on global warning if the big boys refuse to play ball – not that we shouldn’t do our bit, of course.

  • It doesn’t look like there’s anything really providing a dramatic stimulus to change tack, environmentally speaking. We hear of Norway opening a new oil rig, Iran being excited that they’ve found new oil of their own to tap, Putin floating the idea of a policy that financially incentivises Russians to have children, USA pretty much sticking their fingers in their ears and saying they’re not listening. Here, the third Heathrow runway just won’t die and the government seriously entertaining talks of reducing air passenger duty inspires little confidence that we’re going to lead the way environmentally, if we can even hit our own targets at all. It’s not looking good.

    The climate crisis is an international problem and can only be solved internationally. The best we can do as a country is put a good foot forward, show other people how to do it without reducing national prosperity, and encourage other countries to follow suit. But that won’t happen under this government.

    Truthfully, I don’t have answers here. You won’t win an election on climate policies until people have felt personal pain from it. By then it’s probably too late. You won’t get businesses to care until it hits their bottom line – hard. I don’t really know what will wake the world up on this issue. I agree that all progressive parties should be keeping this issue firmly in focus, though. They need to work on how to communicate ideas like the ‘Green New Deal’ in less abstract ways that empower people and actually make them feel like a shift away from the norm is a tangible and doable thing. That there is a way to build a sustainable and prosperous future that won’t worsen issues of poverty, insecure work, housing issues and the like.

  • Agree with Tobias above. Unfortunately public reaction against processes of destruction is very slow to get mobilised – profit tends to win against conscience. That’s why the buffalo was wiped out in America and the rhino is practically extinct. We are still burning fossil fuels and people are still driving around in their planet-killing SUV’s and pickup trucks. I’m sure this includes Aussies even though you’d have thought a major crisis like this would have got Scott Morrison thrown out and the politics turned green.

  • This sounds like people building on flood plains and then complaining their house gets flooded.

    Because of Green policies the normal bush management of regular burns has not been carried out. This then results in a massive out of control blaze. What did you expect?

  • John Roffey 16th Jan '20 - 4:21am

    Although this article is initially about the Australian bush fires – Catherine is asking a more fundamental question:

    “The Liberal Democrat environmental policies are good, as far as it goes. But we need to be doing more. It is clear that if we continue on as normal the next generation will be engaged in a struggle for basic survival in the face of ever increasing extreme weather events.”

    From the Guardian: Climate emergency: 2019 was second hottest year on record
    Last decade was also hottest yet in 150 years of measurements, say scientists

    ” The UN secretary general, António Guterres, and many others are urging nations to increase dramatically their pledges to cut carbon emissions, which would lead to global temperatures rising by a disastrous 3-4C.”

    The truth is that, as things stand, there is very little chance that the necessary cuts in CO2 emissions will be achieved and we are on course for the extinction of many species including ourselves – probably within the life time of the today’s children.

    The question is – are Liberal Democrats going to champion policies that place the UK as one of the most progressive nations in terms of the climate emergency? Or are they going to accept this outcome – because they are not prepared to restrict many lifestyle practices that are preventing the UK from reaching zero emissions in time?

  • Catherine Wilson 16th Jan '20 - 12:29pm

    The people who say that it is the greens fault for stopping controlled burning of scrub and undergrowth are repeating a false story told by climate change deniers. Classic – blame the messenger, not the perpetrator. There is one green in the Australian parliament – do you really think they have the power to decide government policy on fire control?
    Mr Morrison (or Scotty from marketing as he is known) is a long term climate change denier. He probably does think supporting the coal industry is good for Australia, at least for the millionaires he hangs out with who have made their millions from the coal industry.
    The point that Australia has mined and exported coal for a long time is a valid one. But don’t blame all Australians – everyone I know there have long been opposed to the industry. The point I’m trying to make is that the Liberal Democrats do not seem to be taking the issue seriously, when it is the most important issue. The Australian fires are one recent sign among many that climate change is happening faster than scientists expected is an emergency that has to be dealt with now.
    I would like to see a restriction in the number of flights we take and the amount of petrol we use. Renewable energy can’t support all our ever increasing energy needs, and some activities will have to be restricted.
    Frank West – We are lucky to live in a country that will not suffer, at least in the short term, as much from climate change as countries like Australia, although I wonder what the people here whose homes have been flooded would have to say about that. I agree individual action of the type you suggest (bar the cold showers!) is desirable but as you imply government action is vital. The current government is clearly not interested in addressing the problem – it has just supported the airline industry – and this is where Liberal Democrats should be shouting loudly, now. But they seem to have ignored all the recent signs that climate change is happening faster than expected, and just getting on with business as usual. I’m encouraged to see from these comments that there are those who agree with me.

  • Paul Holmes 16th Jan '20 - 1:43pm

    I agree that campaigning ref Climate Change should be a top Lib Dem priority. It should always have been and should have been over the last 3.5 years when we concentrated almost exclusively on opposing Brexit. Linking a Green New Deal to fighting environmental problems is also an excellent way to be more than a single issue pressure group and to counter the sort of view (so predominant in strip mining, coal exporting Australian Government thinking and with Trump supporters for example) that we have to stick with old style industries or face economic disaster.

    To be fair however I have certainly heard/read Ed Davey making a good case on this. I also note that on the day Catherine’s article was published 2 out of 6 Parliamentary Press statements issued by the Lib Dems were indeed about environmental issues. In this case those involved in air transport/baling out Flybe.

    I also note that Catherine wrote/published this article on 15th Jan

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Jan '20 - 4:58pm

    I see the climate trolls are out in force. It’s the usual shifting litany of denial – “There’s no climate change” – “There is climate change but it’s all natural” – “There is climate change but it’s no problem” – “It’s all the fault of the Greens and political correctness.”
    I don’t know whether Peter, Max and John Peters are genuinely misinformed, or have latched onto a widely spread myth that suits their anti-Pc would-be iconoclasm, or are maliciously spreading falsehoods, or are real people at all. But the issue of controlled burning isn’t just “more complex”, as Paul Walters says – it’s a complete red herring; or perhaps we should say a cremated cat.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Peter Martin
    @ Martin, "The ‘political centralisation’ stuff was hooey , strictly for political anoraks and oddballs." There must be an awful lot of odd...
  • Jayne Mannsfield
    I was interested in reading a post by Denis Mollison which I think was on this thread.. A rather alarming claim was made by a previous poster and a request t...
  • David Raw
    Oh come on, Alex. Dorothy Bain QC was only appointed as Lord Advocate on 22 June - just thirteen weeks ago. You've got to lay the first brick to build a wall. ...
  • Nonconformistradical
    @Geoff Reid "So long as some people are looking out for the attacks Facebook is not compulsory." Is it ever compulsory?...
  • David Raw
    @ John Marriott "and has probably got several t shirts to prove it (if he can still get into them)". Now then, young John, mind your manners. Thirteen sto...