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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.