Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bushfire evidence silent on climate change

Yesterday's evidence at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission heard much fascinating evidence from the Bureau of Meteorology's Dr Mark Williams. Dr Williams did a very thorough job of setting out the extreme weather conditions that factor into the Forest Fire Danger Index, especially the highly anomalous and extreme temperatures prevailing in the January heatwave and during the fires.

Yet a search of the transcript reveals no mention of 'climate' and only two mentions of 'warming' in all the evidence for that day. The first, at lines 20-25 on page 728, has Dr Williams remarking on the potential contribution of the warming trend he clearly acknowledges to anti-cyclone wind patterns.

The second, at lines 20ff. from Commissioner Susan Pascoe, says warming 'projections seem to be toward an extension of these weather patterns'. Leaving aside the indications that the trend is likely to worsen, not proceed in a merely linear fashion, if there continues to be inadequate action on climate change, my question is this: How is it that the Commissioners could not bring themselves to ask any questions regarding climate change of an obviously expert witness?

My submission makes the point that recommendations from this Royal Commission urging a reconsideration of climate policy from the perspective of bushfire prevention might well be influential in the climate position Australia takes to international talks in Copenhagen. If this influenced other nations to adopt a stronger climate agreement, that would have clear benefits for prevention of bushfire in Australia over time.

Conversely, a failure by the Royal Commission to contribute in this manner might well cut across any recommendations it makes regarding better warning, emergency response and bushfire mitigation. If climate change goes unchecked, whatever adaptation measures they recommend will be increasingly ineffective and perhaps even useless.

Maybe the inquiry is yet to hear further climate evidence, but it's hard to know given that there is no publicly available schedule of witnesses or topics for consideration. The Preliminary Directions Media Release issued by the Royal Commission on 20 April shows that no climate groups have been given either leave to appear, or conditional leave to appear. Of course, the Royal Commission may call expert climate witnesses, but the signs are not good for climate change getting appropriate air-time in this inquiry.

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