Interim report points to climate-based bushfires, ignores cause

September 3, 2020
The cause of the catastrophic bushfires, greenhouse gases, needs to be addressed.

Unsurprisingly, the interim report into the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements released on August 31 found all levels of government need to better deal with the more frequent and intense natural disasters the country is likely to face.

While it talked about climate change, it did not investigate how cutting greenhouse gas emissions would help reduce future disasters.

The Black Summer fires burned more than 10 million hectares of countryside, claimed 33 lives and destroyed more than 3000 homes. University of Tasmania experts told the commission that 445 people likely died from exposure to smoke pollution.

The commission was tasked with finding ways to improve disaster management in three main areas: how the federal government coordinates with other levels of government; resilience to climate change and mitigating disaster risk; and looking into laws governing the federal government response to national emergencies.

It noted that “cascading, concurrent and compounding” disasters, in particular extreme bushfires, are linked to escalating climate change. “Australia’s weather and climate agencies have told us that changes to the climate are projected to increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters in Australia. Further warming over the next 20 years appears to be inevitable.

“Sea-levels are projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense.

“Additionally, as the 2019-2020 bushfire season demonstrated, bushfire behaviour has become more extreme and less predictable. Catastrophic fire conditions may become more common, rendering traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective,” the report stated.

But, as disaster management expert and Australian National University academic Robert Glasser pointed out in the September 2 Conversation, a glaring omission was the commission’s failure to look into reducing future disasters by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The report said that while the conditions leading up to the 2019-20 bushfires were without precedent, they are no longer unprecedented, and that Australia needs to be prepared for further severe natural disasters.

The commission is recommending that the National Cabinet approach, established to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, could also be used to manage natural disasters.

The commission received 1700 submissions and heard evidence from 290 witnesses.

The interim report contained no specific recommendations: they come with the final report due at the end of October.

However, it did criticise the length of time taken to develop a nationally consistent approach to fire warnings and danger ratings. A national warning system has been in development for six years, something the commission said needed to be “finished as a priority”.

The report also called for a uniform approach to fire danger ratings, noting that ratings like “catastrophic” are different across states and territories.

In June, some 150 experts and bushfire survivors grouped as Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) hosted a National Bushfire Summit.  More than 165 recommendations were included in ELCA’s Australian Bushfire and Climate Plan report, published in late July and presented to commission.

One key recommendation was a climate disaster fund to be financed by a fossil fuel levy on the industry.

ELCA cofounder and former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner Greg Mullins told the ABC, that as climate change was behind last summer’s catastrophic bushfire season, a levy should be placed on the fossil fuel industry.

“We had the hottest, driest year ever — a year that would not have happened without the impact of climate change.” He said the fires were “bigger, hotter, faster and more destructive [than] what we’ve ever experienced before. The fires were weather driven and the weather was driven by a warming climate,” Mullins said.

He also said the fossil fuel industry can afford to pay “given all their tax breaks”.

While the royal commission did draw a general link between climate change and worsening bushfire conditions it did not look at their drivers.

As Glasser said, it is disappointing the royal commission has not yet commented on the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible. To seriously confront future bushfire crises, the commission’s final report must take up the cause of the escalating fire menace: runaway climate change.

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