Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bushfire Royal Commission must address climate

Releasing the terms of reference for the Royal Commission into the 2009 Victorian bushfires, Premier John Brumby captured the essential purpose of the inquiry - to identify ‘any steps that can be taken to prevent this from ever happening again’.

At first sight, the terms appear adequately broad. They refer to preparation and planning for bushfires by governments - plural - presumably enabling the Commissioners to examine the role of the state and federal governments in the disaster. They also include an examination of current laws and policies that bear on the prevention of ‘bushfire threats and risks’.

Beyond that, as reported by David Rood in The Age, there is ‘a catch-all reference allowing Commissioner Bernard Teague to examine "any matters that you deem appropriate in relation to the 2009 bushfires"’.

Undoubtedly these terms will enable the investigation of a broad range of issues crucial to the prevention of future bushfires - fire-response strategies, communication, forest management and building standards among them. Yet if ‘preparation’, ‘planning’ and ‘prevention’ are narrowly interpreted, the significant factor of climate change - and, in particular, the federal government’s climate policies - will not receive appropriate scrutiny in the search for truth about this disaster.

No doubt it will be argued that the ‘catch-all’ included in the terms is broad enough to bring climate into consideration without it being named. The question is then whether such an important factor in the fires should be left to the discretion of the Commission when, along with other factors, it might have easily been explicitly identified in the terms of reference.

Until recently there has been little searching consideration of climate and the bushfires in the media. Senator Bob Brown made an early statement reported by the ABC about the implications of climate for bushfire risk. Peter Marshall, the National Secretary of the United Firefighters’ Union, wrote an open letter to the prime minister - republished and reported in the media - that called for action on climate to avoid placing firefighters in greater future jeopardy.

Now the Climate Institute has spoken out, presenting strong evidence linking climate change to the fires.

Yet the paucity of immediate coverage from the climate perspective followed comments before the fires by federal climate change minister, Penny Wong, who stated that the unprecedented heatwave conditions experienced in south-east Australia were connected to climate change.

As the fires still raged, the ABC’s Lateline program broadcast an interview with Professor David Karoly, the head of the Victorian government’s own climate change reference group. Professor Karoly said that climate change was ‘loading the dice’ in favour of more frequent and more devastating bushfires in Australia.

In the heart-rending aftermath of the fires, there has been an understandable impulse to avoid the so-called ‘blame game’ in favour of the immediate needs of the victims. Speculations about the causes of the fires - beyond the atrocities of arson and the possible role of powerlines - have tended to be seen as an opportunity to advance political agendas.

It was perhaps this impulse that recently led Shaun Carney, writing in The Age, to lump together as ‘bone-headed’ the ill-informed recriminations against ‘greenies’ for their claimed locking up of forests and accumulation of fuel for the infernos, and anyone daring to suggest that climate played a role in this tragedy.

While he was on the money regarding the lynch-mob mentality towards conservationists being pushed in some media quarters, Carney’s dismissal of the climate perspective was based on a shallow analysis of how climate contributed to these fires.

By the admission of the federal climate change minister and Premier Brumby himself, and the considered views of experts such as Professor Karoly, global warming helped set the conditions for the fires. Yet few suggest that the Australian government bears direct responsibility for these specific fires because of its current climate stance. Attacking this immoderate climate position, Carney misses the central climate point.

For it can indeed be said that Australia’s grossly inadequate targets for carbon emissions, and its broader climate policies, betray a position entirely consistent with more of the same - more frequent and ferocious fires, more devastating loss of human life, property, bushland and wildlife.

The question for Prime Minister Rudd, and for all Australian leaders, is whether such a climate position is morally sustainable given that we have an opportunity to influence and even lead the negotiations for the next international climate agreement, and so to lessen severe global warming impacts over time.

Can we continue to approve new coal mines and coal-fired power stations, value roads over public transport, and line the pockets of the big polluters through a weak emissions trading scheme when the inexorable result will be, among many other catastrophic impacts, more deadly fires?

With increasing reports that the rate of global warming is escalating, Victoria’s bushfires show that the lag between the build-up of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and the hellish consequences is becoming tragically reduced.

For the Royal Commission into the bushfires to focus squarely on prevention, the terms of reference must allow climate change policies to be fully considered. Premier Brumby claims everyone who has a view will have a chance to put it forward. If so, the vagueness of the terms of reference about climate should not prevent the Commission hearing the evidence-based views of Australia’s eminent climate scientists. The proof, however, will be in the pudding.

Let's hope the Climate Institute, which has already signalled its intention to participate, will be joined by other authoritative voices seeking to engage the inquiry on the urgent question of climate action. The Royal Commission will then be better informed in making recommendations to governments to address bushfire prevention in the broadest sense.

Far from the partisan call of an opportunistic political agenda, the demand for an unflinching investigation of climate change in this Commission is one way we can honour the injured and the dead.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Are political donations driving Victorian development?

As recently reported in The Melbourne Times ('State squashes planning right in bid to save jobs', 11/2/09), the Brumby government is set on 'fast-tracking' major developments by taking them out of the hands of local councils where there is a claimed 'net community benefit', including the creation of jobs in the building industry. A lot rides on how that benefit is (or isn't) defined.

One problem is that, according to a recent report by Royce Millar in The Age based on Australian Electoral Commission figures, the Victorian ALP is a major beneficiary of political donations from big developers. If it's not on for local councillors to vote on developments by developers who have given them political donations, do we really want an ALP flush with developers' cash steamrolling local democratic processes and community concerns? Here's the unedited version of my letter published in today's edition of TMT.
Greg Barber's letter about Greens contributions in Parliament offers an interesting lens through which to examine the Northcote Bowl development.

Barber writes that a private member's Bill he introduced last year aimed to prevent councillors voting on any development where they had received election donations from the developer. Now we have the Brumby State Government giving the green light to the Northcote Bowl development, sidelining a refreshingly feisty council in an undemocratic process.

Yet on 3 February, Royce Millar reported in The Age that, according to Australian Electoral Commission figures, 'corporate donations to Labor are predominantly from firms with lucrative public contracts or planning approvals, or those seeking them'. Millar identified a number of large donations from big developers bankrolling the Victorian ALP. That is to say, development decisions are being taken out of council hands by a government swimming in developers' cash.

While I am not claiming that the developers of the Northcote Bowl are among the ALP's donors, the scale of developer donations to the ALP amounts to inappropriate political influence in favour of bulldozing developments through despite valid community opposition - hardly a 'net community benefit'.
I agree with comments by Rucker Ward Councillor Trent McCarthy reported in TMT that the financial downturn is being used as a pretext to 'push through developments that deserve more scrutiny' (11/2, 'Ire as Brumby bowls residents over'). I look forward to the outcome of Councillor McCarthy's discussions with other Darebin councillors regarding his proposed public meeting on the Northcote Bowl development.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Political tears will not quell fires in a warming globe

With their toll set to exceed 200 lives, Victoria's tragic bushfires challenge politicians not only to mitigate the dangerous global warming that is already locked in, but also to prevent it worsening and making fires and other extreme events ever more likely.

Yet the Royal Commission recently announced by Victorian State Premier, John Brumby, to investigate the fires appears set to focus solely on mitigation, with an admittedly necessary review of fire response strategies and planning laws. This narrow approach fails to acknowledge what could be done to prevent further global temperature increases that will otherwise stoke even more devastating infernos.

Commenting before the fires, Australia's federal climate change minister Penny Wong acknowledged that recent record temperatures reflected climate change. Now Premier Brumby has invoked it as a factor in the disaster. On Monday night, the head of Victoria's climate change reference group, Professor David Karoly, told ABC Lateline that climate change is 'loading the dice' in favour of more frequent extreme conditions. Yet the inadequate climate policies of our leaders are loading the dice in favour of climate change itself.

When Australian governments value cars over public transport, approve new coal mines and coal-fired power stations, when they refuse to harness renewables, and especially when our nation takes to the international bargaining table emissions targets that undermine international action, this undeniably creates the policy conditions for the extreme weather that leads to such monstrous fires.

Without effective climate policy, our leaders may as well cry their political tears on the flames for all the good they will do. We need climate action.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Victorian bushfire spin distracts a traumatised state

I wonder if anyone noticed a trend in evening television advertising in Victoria as the state was first gripped by the disastrous widespread bushfires. With the fires already raging, there came the sudden appearance of the 'fireready' website ad, which I'd never seen before the fires started. Last night, I noticed, on Victoria's channel 9, an increased screening of the government ad urging personal action on climate change (the black balloon ad), but also the ad for the terrorism hotline ('Have you seen anything unusual?' etc.).

In light of Penny Wong's recent comments that record summer temperatures are consistent with climate change, the question is whether this pattern of advertising is genuinely for the purpose of public information, or to manage the potential public perception that part of the blame for the devastation of the fires lies with the Australian and state and territory governments for their inaction on climate (approval of new coal mines, coal-fired power stations, inadequate targets etc.), and their failure to adequately prepare for bushfires given their knowledge of the likelihood of extreme fire conditions.

In this regard, it would be very interesting to examine when the ads in question were booked, and how the pattern of government advertising in this disaster period compares with the normal schedule for such advertising across the major metropolitan and regional television stations.

Though it is indeed expected that our leaders involve themselves in the efforts to address such disasters, the personal involvements of Premier Brumby and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have been very much in the forefront of the media coverage, with Kevin Rudd quoted this morning as likening the deliberate lighting of fires to mass murder (which is, of course, tragically accurate).

Nevertheless, are the Federal and Victorian State governments using spin in the mass media to distract the public from their own culpability in this tragedy, rather than informing us about what needs to happen to minimise further harm from the fires? This question is all the more urgent given the foreshadowed review of the 'leave early, or stay and defend' strategy following the escalating death toll from the fires. When government communication is overloaded with spin, maybe the real and potentially life-saving messages suffer - with fatal consequences.

Blame personal inaction on climate change, highlight the role of arsonists, and even insinuate terrorism, but turn scrutiny away from government complicity in bringing about the conditions that led to these fires, and may well lead to future ones. That just might be the hidden rationale of the current television advertising campaign, and, if so, it's wrong.