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.

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