Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Weak climate law won't help us in Copenhagen

Today's edition of The Age carries my letter responding to a report that Al Gore thinks passing Australia's weak climate law might help achieve an international climate agreement in Copenhagen in December.

Gore's suggestion seems to reflect the kind of incrementalist view currently dividing environment groups in Australia. The argument is that we should support any step forward in the hope that further improvements will be possible down the track.

The trouble is, the timeframe for achieving such intermediate steps to a safe climate will see us run foul of climate tipping points that science shows are being approached far more rapidly than anticipated. Better to acknowledge the science and aim for an effective (and fair) agreement now.

An inferior international agreement will likely be sold politically as mission accomplished on climate, even though it sets us on a collision course with further severe climate impacts such as the Black Saturday bushfires.

Consequently, I think Gore, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Climate Institute are wrong in their endorsement of Australia's current climate policy. They are dealing themselves into a losing game and fragmenting the climate campaign for strong policy based on the only yardstick that matters - science.

Here's my letter, as submitted:
Despite the contribution of Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, to raising awareness of the climate threat, I cannot agree with Gore's suggestion that passing inadequate Australian legislation will help frame an effective international climate treaty in Copenhagen this December. On the contrary, an emissions trading system with weak targets can only serve to curtail the ambition of these crucial negotiations.

It would be a different story if our legislation set strong science-based targets, including a 2020 reduction of at least 40% on 1990 greenhouse levels. That is not the case, however, and it is difficult to see how the proposed legislation's weak targets, once made law, could influence, or indeed be strengthened by, anything that played out in Denmark.

By the yardstick of the Coalition, Fielding and the climate denialists, Gore, Rudd and Wong look like climate progressives. The trouble is, that's the wrong yardstick. Targets can now be very specifically linked to levels of warming, and in turn to severe impacts such as the Black Saturday bushfires. We must heed the science and acknowledge the link between the targets we set and the impacts we will suffer. Only then will there be hope of returning to a safe climate.
Comments are welcome.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Brumby should 'pre-empt' on climate

Victorian State Premier John Brumby got into hot water today over comments from counsel assisting the Bushfires Royal Commission that he may have pre-empted the inquiry's preliminary report, which is due to be published mid-August.

As the ABC has reported (see link above), Jack Rush QC views the Premier's comments on changes to the 'stay or go' policy, plans for 'neighbourhood safer places' and 'township protection plans' as 'fundamental' to the inquiry's own investigations and therefore as risking pre-emption of the royal commission's preliminary findings.

The ABC has reported Premier Brumby's response as follows:
Isn't it the government's job to try and protect the state? To take actions and decisions now, to ensure we don't see a repeat of February 7th? And that's exactly what we're doing.
On ABC Radio National's 6.00pm news he also said it was the government's 'obligation to adopt policies that protect the community'.

If that's the case, then the Premier should consider 'pre-empting' the royal commission on climate.

That's because, judging from the inquiry's shyness on climate change from anything but an adaptation perspective, it seems unlikely its interim report will make any recommendations on how stronger Australian climate policy could serve long-term bushfire prevention.

In my view stronger policy could do this by offering Australian leadership to December's Copenhagen talks on a new international climate agreement. A more effective agreement would better limit the global warming that is clearly linked to increased bushfire risk. In my submission to the royal commission, I set out six recommendations the royal commission could consider to prompt a climate policy rethink following the fires, which took the lives of 173 people.

If, as seems likely, there is little or nothing in the royal commission's interim report to this end, the inquiry will have missed the boat, as its final report falls after the crucial Copenhagen negotiations. If Premier Brumby truly wants to 'protect the state' by supporting a safe global climate, he should be making sure that we heed the climate warning of the tragic Black Saturday bushfires by pushing for a stronger Australian position when it really counts.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely there will be any kind of 'pre-emption' on this matter, because the terms of reference were clearly constructed by the Victorian State Government to avoid a politically awkward focus on climate change.

That's a pity, because the problem of severe bushfires is only set to worsen dramatically without climate action. Perhaps what Brumby needs to pre-empt is climate change itself, and not the proceedings of an inquiry he has seemingly formed to ignore it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Australia makes the climate news in Copenhagen

The Danish Government has an official website and blog for December's climate negotiations in Copenhagen (COP15). Australia features in a recent post, 'US Bill has an effect Down Under'. Here's the comment I posted in response:
The Australian Federal Opposition may well fold and end up voting for Australia's climate legislation when the Senate resumes in August. However, should a compromise be reached on the legislation and it is voted in, that will not mean Australia has a policy that will help lead us back to a safe climate with fewer severe bushfires and other climate change impacts we are already experiencing.

Nor will being guided by the US guarantee an effective outcome. Every government's position must be tested against the science, and international agreement reached that brings greenhouse gases much closer to pre-industrial levels. Science is the only true yardstick; not the relative merits of one scientifically inadequate position compared to another.

In Australia's case, we should be looking at 2020 cuts of at least 40% on 1990 levels, with the further aim of contributing to global stabilisation of carbon dioxide at around 300ppm as soon as possible.

As prominent US climate campaigner Bill McKibben has said, the earth's climate doesn't negotiate. In Copenhagen this December, the world needs to listen to the science and, hopefully with Australian leadership, work out a way to share the burden of effective action in a way that is fair for developed and developing nations.

Updates to the Copenhagen website can also be followed on Twitter and Facebook, or you can post your 'climate thoughts' on their spinning globe that shows climate views from around the world.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Bushfire submissions badly handled

When I visited the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission submissions page today I noted some progress. After prodding the staff over the past month or so regarding the publication of submissions and related matters, I saw that my own - submitted way back on 15 May - was finally up there.

Though there has been some progress - 472 submissions appear to be up as of this writing, compared with 432 yesterday - where does that leave the balance of the 1300 or so received by the 18 May deadline according to telephone advice I received yesterday from one of the inquiry's solicitors?

There is also the curious fact that I was told yesterday that submissions were being published in order, and that mine came in in the high 700s, yet it is mysteriously there today, apparently ahead in the queue. The squeaky wheel, perhaps, but it raises questions about the transparency of the whole process.

Added to this is the fact that the published cover sheet for my submission failed to acknowledge the main topics I indicated in making my submission via the web. Concerned about this when I received initial email confirmation, I emailed the inquiry on the day of submission seeking an assurance that all the areas I had indicated would be included with my submission and considered accordingly. This email was acknowledged on 18 May, yet the submission as published only acknowledges climate change.

The other areas I had nominated on the inquiry's web submission form (all of which clearly relate to climate change) included:
Causes and circumstances of the bushfires
Policy, preparation and planning of governments, emergency services
Response to the bushfires

This is far from a trivial point, because the degree to which submissions relate to the terms of reference determines how they will be considered in the process - submissions that are not explicitly related to the terms are unlikely to feature in the inquiry's findings. Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there.

Apart from the lengthy delay in publication (2 July following 15 May submission), my light-weight PDF document had blown out to an inaccessible 3MB, all the live links to references within the document had been killed, and a blog address included in the submission was deleted, despite having no implications for my privacy. In fact, my submission was prepared in accordance with the guidelines in a way that should have allowed its almost instant publication.

The fact that the vast majority of submissions are unavailable - including any by major climate groups - at a time when the interim August recommendations are already being talked about in the media is symptomatic of the obscurity of public information surrounding this royal commission.

For those without the privileged access of the media, try finding a list of witnesses, or searching across the transcripts for mention of climate change. Try merely linking to individual submissions from the public - good luck.

With the interim report due on 17 August the only opportunity to influence the climate debate in the lead-up to Copenhagen, the lack of transparency and the general failure to acknowledge climate change policy as an instrument of bushfire prevention should concern us all.

Read more coverage about the 2009 Victorian bushfires

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bushfires should be remembered in Copenhagen

With the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission gearing up to deliver its interim report next month, it will be interesting to see what recommendations are made regarding climate policy as a means of addressing future bushfire risk in the broadest sense.

So far, the inquiry has been reticent even to utter the words 'climate change', yet the interim report is the only real opportunity for it to influence the position Australia takes to international climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December.

The Copenhagen negotiations will underpin world climate action post-Kyoto, and will be a big factor in determining whether countries such as Australia encounter ever more severe climate impacts like the Black Saturday fires, or whether the world turns the corner and heads back towards a safer climate.

So how might the Royal Commission seek to contribute to fire-proofing Australia through its interim recommendations? In my May submission to the inquiry, yet to appear on its official website, I concluded with the following specific recommendations:
  1. Granting that human-caused climate change falls within an appropriate construction of the terms of reference, I call on the Commissioners to acknowledge its contribution to the 2009 Victorian bushfires, especially with regard to the influence of climate change in pushing the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) to unprecedented levels during Black Saturday.

  2. To satisfy themselves of the above, the Commissioners should call such expert scientific witnesses, and avail themselves of such peer-reviewed scientific research as deemed necessary.

  3. The Commissioners should call for current State, Territory and Federal climate and energy policies to be assessed as a matter of urgency for their effect on bushfire mitigation in the broadest sense. The timing of such assessment must enable Australia's strengthening of its climate policy leading into international climate talks at Copenhagen in December 2009 (COP 15).

  4. The Commissioners should call on the Australian Government to adopt an unconditional emissions target as a parts-per-million measure of atmospheric carbon dioxide that would maximise the chances of bushfire mitigation if adopted universally via the international agreement to be considered at COP 15.

    The target set must consider the most recent science indicating a level of the order of 300ppm CO2 is now considered necessary to offer a good chance of achieving a safe climate. It should also include the aspiration to achieve a zero carbon emissions economy at the earliest opportunity.

  5. The Commissioners should call for the publication by the Australian Government of the target it adopts for the Copenhagen negotiations, explicitly detailing the corresponding level of global warming related to international agreement at that level, together with the consequent reduction or increase in Australian fire danger according to the Forest Fire Danger Index.

  6. The Commissioners should acknowledge the Copenhagen negotiations as the key remaining opportunity for Australian action to influence international climate measures before tipping points are crossed, rendering further human intervention ineffective, and entering an inexorable trend of more frequent and extreme bushfires in Australia.
At a community climate event back in April, Kelvin Thomson, the Federal Labor Member for Wills, said he considered the connection between climate change and the fires to be 'blindingly obvious'. It would be a great pity if the Australian Government were then to develop a case of policy blindness, and the Black Saturday bushfires were not remembered in Copenhagen.

Read more about the 2009 Victorian bushfires.