Flashpoint and the fire royal commission

November 3, 2020
Climate rally, Sydney, February 2020. Photo: Peter Boyle

The final report of the Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements was handed down on October 28. It acknowledges what environmental groups, climate activists, scientists, disaster management experts and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change among many others, have been saying for decades.

Increasingly catastrophic weather events — including fires like the 2019-20 Black Summer disaster — were fuelled by climate change.

The voices demanding that government takes real action on greenhouse gas emissions reductions and genuine renewable energy options are getting louder. The Liberal-National Party in Queensland has just learned the hard way what it can cost, electorally, to ignore growing concern in the community around climate change.  

The major parties are repeatedly polling as “on the nose”, nationally, for fence sitting on environmentally destructive, lobbyist-driven projects the community does not want — such as the Adani coal project in the Galilee Basin.

The NSW Nationals’ dummy spit over the state’s koala management plan, the 98% community opposition to Santos in Narrabri, the public blowback over the massive fail that is the Murray Darling Basin Plan are all examples of government policy lagging way behind the democratic discourse.

This, combined with years of drought, followed by the bushfires, reveal the realities of climate change can no longer be ignored.  

After years of under-funding and political inaction, the 2019-2020 summer exposed so many failings that Prime Minister Scott Morrison — deeply unpopular for languishing on the beach in Hawaii while Australia burned — was finally compelled to call the royal commission.

The elephant in the room

The commission’s report expressly names climate change as increasing the risk and impact of natural disasters and states that global warming beyond the next 20 to 30 years “is largely dependent on the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions”.  

Inexplicably, there was no consequential recommendation advising the government to take urgent action to significantly cut those same greenhouse gas emissions, move to renewable energy and commit to net zero emissions at any date.

Many of Australia’s allies are already doing so, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison found out on a recent call with Boris Johnston.

Some argue that mitigating global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions was never in the Terms of Reference. This is technically true, yet “asserting whether or not climate change is real” is not in the Terms of Reference either.

Why did the commission so directly address the symptom that is climate change, but not the underlying root cause?  

What the terms do clearly focus on are “hazard reduction” and “risk mitigation”. Whichever way you spin it, emissions reduction comes squarely under both.

Overview of report

The report takes into account a huge amount of input, both new and pre-existing. Also in keeping with its Terms of Reference there are limited pre-emptive recommendations, focusing mainly on after-care and the practical improvements needed for disaster management frameworks, budgets and resources.

It outlines how to better help communities prepare for, adapt to and build resilience to climate change. 

This includes Australia obtaining and maintaining a water-bombing fleet; boosting other fire fighting capabilities; telecommunication coverage; information and resource sharing between the states and territories and the federal government; nationally consistent disaster danger ratings, warning systems, their public information and education programs; and Indigenous fire-management practices in risk mitigation.

Importantly, streamlined access to emergency and recovery funding was targeted: the current system proven to be problematic to recent bushfire victims.

Environment-related recommendations

There are four recommendations relating to environmental issues and one relating to climate risk.

Recommendation 4.5 advises state and territory governments to produce “downscaled climate projections” for use by relevant disaster decision makers. They should be “underpinned by an agreed common core set of climate trajectories and timelines”, it states.

Recommendation 14.1 recommends “develop[ing] close to real-time, nationally consistent air quality information” for health advice, education and guidance — presumably a database.  

Recommendation 16.1 reiterates the need for greater consistency and collaboration in the collation, storage, access and provision of data on the distribution and conservation status of Australian flora and fauna.

Recommendation 18.1 of Indigenous land and fire management and natural disaster resilience states that all levels of government should “engage further” with Traditional Owners to explore the relationship between Indigenous land and fire management and natural disaster resilience.

The Interim Report’s Appendices notes that there are 139 Indigenous land and sea management projects in train across the country. It is well past time their expertise was properly integrated.

Australia’s track record for implementing royal commission recommendations is far from exemplary. This one is also going to be challenging, especially given the government’s denial of the seriousness of climate change and it ongoing support for billions of taxpayer dollars to continue to go to the fossil fuel industry.

Nor does the government’s track record on apps, database management and rogue algorithms auger well for the centralised information objectives.

Add the fact that, historically, any leader who has mentioned emission reduction, or a renewables-focused energy policy, has been deposed and it is easy to feel despondent.  

But with the Greens taking seats in Queensland, a growing public pushback against coal seam gas, increased public support for meaningful climate action and even some Liberal MPs speaking out, it suddenly feels less like a losing battle.

Maybe, the need for real action on climate change is finally starting to cut through. If we and the plants, animals, air and water that give us life are to survive, it is a fight we simply have to win.

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