How we can fight the fires of climate change

Climate action

Dr Joe Fontaine explains what it will take to get carbon out of our energy system and avert ecological collapse, the twin challenges of our times.

We have been very fortunate here in WA to be buffered from the pandemic and global economic turbulence by our relative isolation and high commodity prices.

While it’s been a huge benefit, this buffering and isolation also make it harder to take warnings seriously at times. Right now, the climate demands our attention, engagement and action.

If we get our sustainability efforts even close to right, we will be a global leader. But if we drag our feet, we will fulfill the stereotype of WA -- waiting awhile.

Getting the carbon out of our energy system and averting ecological collapse are the twin challenges of our times.

The regions and countries that are first to de-carbonise energy will be economically dominant for decades to come. Renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil energy and has zero marginal cost.

Once it is set up, there are no further inputs like gas or coal which are vulnerable to global markets and associated supply constraints. Just look at energy costs on the east coast.

The energy grid serving the southwest is the largest isolated grid in the world. That comes with challenges, but also the opportunity to get out of carbon more quickly. 

The state government has announced the closure of the Muja power plant and construction of a battery at Kwinana, but could move much faster.

The energy grid in the northwest is a global leader in the technology required to decarbonise the grid – with batteries, new forms of grid management and infrastructure. The southwest can do this too and we can encourage our government to move with greater speed and priority.

The parallel challenge of our time is to avoid ecological collapse of the systems that sustain us. We have all seen the fires and floods in the eastern states and the flow-on effects to our economy. The adage of ‘ultimately all politics is local’ applies equally to how we approach environmental management.

I am a fire scientist and have observed how, in our own region, we face myriad challenges managing fire. The poster child is the decades old debate surrounding prescribed burning. Concerns are raised, sides form, views harden, and arguments go round and round for decades.

This leaves us caught on a seesaw of arguments while little changes, global heating progresses, more people live adjacent to fire-prone areas, and environmental conditions become increasingly dire.

The recent summers of devastating bushfires have drawn a big thick line underneath the gaping holes in our knowledge and capacity.

An engaged community can change this. We can demand transparency, cooperation, and proper knowledge to inform the discussion and progress our understanding. This is what will drive the relationships required and evolution of fire management tools.

Right now, we are working with on-ground operations, state and indigenous partners, right through to high levels of government to develop the solutions. But more must be done, and all parts of our community can contribute.

The public can and should demand more of their elected leaders. Our businesses can deliver on their environmental sustainability obligations. And our universities and education system can continue to build the capacity we need to tackle these challenges.

We have the ability, range of climates and frequency of fires in WA to export critical knowledge and management practices to the world.

Our isolation is not a barrier, but an opportunity to lead this change.

- By Dr Joe Fontaine

Top image: Murdoch University ecology students examining a fire site with Dr Joe Fontaine, centre.

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Posted on:

7 Dec 2022


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